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The New Jersey Democratic State Committee is gleefully touting gubernatorial candidate Jack Ciattarelli’s interview yesterday with WNYC’s Brian Lehrer, claiming the back-and-forth is proof that the GOP candidate is “not ready for prime time.” The section of the interview where Ciattarelli got himself twisted up in knots was when Lehrer asked him about his plans for school funding. While his campaign website is a little vague on the specifics of his proposal for school funding reform, “Jack’s Plan” lists the following items as part of the solution for New Jerseyans burdened by the highest property taxes in the country:
- Shift extraordinary special education costs, which create an unfair burden on property taxpayers, to the state.
- Restore state aid to struggling suburban, shore area and rural schools to relieve the financial burden on local communities.
- Redefine “local fair share” so no community funds less than 25 percent of its school operating budget or construction costs.
- Reduce costs and increase efficiency by incentivizing voluntary regionalization among our 565 towns and 600+ school districts.
Ciattarelli’s proposals would most likely “flat-fund” school districts, regardless of tax base or income levels. This would mean, for example, that the state would send the same amount of money to Camden as to Montclair. And that’s where Ciattarelli got himself into some trouble. Here are the relevant excerpts from a transcript of the interview:
Lehrer: As you heard in a recap of the first debate on yesterday’s show, [Ciattarelli] disagrees with the incumbent Democrat Phil Murphy on a whole lot of issues, ranging from property taxes and education to abortion funding and guns. Mr. Ciattarelli, thanks so much for coming on. Welcome to WNYC…When you’re talking about investing in the urban centers, in the debate the other night, you promised a new school funding formula that you call flatter and more equal, which Governor Murphy at least meant or I guess you were saying flat out, you tell us, that you would spend less on education for low-income kids.
Ciattarelli: I never said I would spend less. What I did say is I will never leave any student behind. I will never leave any community behind. I will never adversely affect the quality of education. But what we do need, while achieving those goals, is a flatter and more equitable distribution of state aid. It is not fair that a million-dollar home in Jersey City and Hoboken pay less in property taxes than a $400,000 home in Toms River, Hillsborough or Parsippany and a great many other towns across the state. That’s not fair. The reason why that dynamic exists is because of the current school funding formula. Phil Murphy continues to send state aid to people that own million dollar homes in places like Hoboken and Jersey City, I don’t think that’s fair if they’re paying less in property taxes than a $400,000 home in, again, Toms River, Hillsborough or Parsippany.
Lehrer: But what would that do to the funding for the poor schools in the cities?
Ciattarelli: I am not going to leave any student behind, I’m not gonna leave any community behind, and I will not affect the quality of education. But I’m not gonna have the owner of a million-dollar home paying less in property taxes than the owner of a $400,000 home.
Lehrer: But just to be clear, does that mean that less aid from those lower tax, those lower tax rates for some would be going to schools in low-income areas?
Ciattarelli: I think what we should have across the state is some kind of equity with regard to what the reasonable range of a cost is, what the cost is to educate a pupil.
Lehrer: Explain that.
Ciattarelli: Well, there’s inequity with the current school funding formula when some districts are spending $28,000 per student and other districts are spending $15,000 per student.
Lehrer: Some Democrats say it’s the wealthy district spending that pushes up the property tax. 30,000 per pupil in Alpine, 29,000 in Saddle River from the numbers I’ve seen, for kids without social disadvantages. Should they lower spending for the sake of property taxes?
Ciattarelli: What you just mentioned are outliers. That is not the case across the vast majority of our school districts in New Jersey…That is not the case in terms of what the cost per pupil is across the vast majority of towns throughout New Jersey.
Later in the interview, in response to a caller’s question, he added, “What I did say is that the way that the state is distributing state aid for schools is not fair. We need a flatter, more equitable distribution of state aid to schools.”
(Photo courtesy of New Jersey Globe.)