Funding Cut Has New Jersey Schools Scrambling Gov. Chris Christie says he will cut state spending on education by $820 million. That means some districts will get no state money at all. He says his target is teacher pay; critics worry the cutbacks will hurt low-income students and programs geared toward the disadvantaged.

Funding Cut Has New Jersey Schools Scrambling

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

State budgets are in crisis everywhere and that means education, one of the largest sources of state spending, will likely see layoffs and closed programs across the country. California is so cash-strapped it might have to start summer vacation early.

Nancy Solomon reports now from New Jersey, where school districts recently found out theyll lose most of their state funding.

NANCY SOLOMON: Last November, Christopher Christie rode a wave of resentment about lost jobs and high property taxes to the governor's office. He pledged to cut government spending, and during his recent budget address, he said his $820 million cut to education is aimed squarely at teacher pay and benefits.

Governor CHRISTOPHER CHRISTIE (Republican, New Jersey): Is it fair to have any public employees getting four to five percent salary increases every year, even when inflation is at zero percent, paid for by citizens who are struggling to survive? Is it fair to have New Jersey taxpayers foot the bill for 100 percent of the health insurance costs of teachers and their families, from the day they are hired until the day they die?

SOLOMON: But even in districts where teachers have agreed to freeze their salaries, like Montclair, New Jersey, some 81 teachers will be laid off, classes will be more crowded, and anything in the curriculum that isn't required by law may be dropped.

Barbara Elder Weller, principal of Rand Elementary School, says these cuts will hurt low-income kids the most, since studies show they begin school behind their middle-class counterparts.

Dr. BARBARA ELDER WELLER (Principal, Rand Elementary School): We really customize and tailor instruction to meet the needs of every single learner in the class. And it's enormously harder to do that when you have fewer resources, fewer support people and more children in the class.

SOLOMON: Rand stands to lose six teachers and two support staff or 13 percent of its workforce.

Weller is particularly upset about losing her full-time social worker, who helps kids who are dealing with problems at home and in school. Lost will be a mentoring program, like this group of fifth graders who struggle with classroom behavior and meet each week with teens from the high school.

Unidentified Man: Alright, so we're going to do a little activity today. It's going to be a situation in middle school and I want you to tell me how you would handle this situation.

SOLOMON: The cuts will also hit a program called IMANI that helps high school kids with tutoring and college applications.

Eighteen-year-old Asana Akpaeti got into college after taking an SAT prep class that can cost $1,000 elsewhere.

Mr. ASANA AKPAETI (Student): Like, I know personally I wouldn't be able to afford those classes. So IMANI definitely helps people who still need to go to college and take the SAT, to be able to prepare for that without having their families stress about where they're going to prepare for it 'cause they can come here.

(Soundbite of children)

Ms. DIANE BLAZIER (Teacher): Boys and girls, we have a couple of minutes left before Spanish. So make sure you...

SOLOMON: Next to Montclair, the tiny affluent hamlet of Glen Ridge, New Jersey, is no less upset, if for different reasons. Teachers, like Diane Blazier, don't appreciate the broadside from the governor.

Ms. BLAZIER: I feel very hurt because when you're a teacher, you give it all. I bring things at home to do. I work in the summers. I give extra hours. We've always agreed to make a little less to get the benefits because we knew that was a perk.

SOLOMON: Blazier began teaching 24 years ago when starting salaries were about 18,000 a year. Now she's at the top of the pay scale about 80,000, among the highest in the country. But the cost of living is very high, and teachers, like every other homeowner in New Jersey, have the highest average property taxes in the nation.

Ms. BLAZIER: We all pay upwards of 15, $20,000 in taxes.

SOLOMON: Amy Owens is a parent of two young daughters in Glen Ridge, which only received five percent of their school budget from the state before it was cut. State government's refusal to fund education forces communities to raise their own property taxes to save schools.

Ms. AMY OWENS: And now they're going up again and are services are going to be cut. That's going to affect our school ranking and affect our property values.

SOLOMON: Governor Christie's budget requires approval from the New Jersey legislature. So, parents and school boards say they'll take their fight to restore funding to the schools to the state capitol.

For NPR News, Im Nancy Solomon.

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