TRENTON, N.J. (AP) -- With relatively small expenditures, Gov. Chris Christie is using his proposed state budget to push harder for more school choice for students in struggling districts.
In the $32.9 billion spending plan he released Tuesday, Christie called for more state aid for school districts and also money for some of his favored programs that would make it easier for students to go to school elsewhere.
Like the rest of the budget, presented at a time when New Jersey's economy has been growing slowly and the governor is up for re-election, Christie is not proposing dramatic changes: no tax cuts or splashy huge new programs. One of the biggest decisions was to raise the income ceiling for adults to qualify for Medicaid -- and under President Barack Obama's health insurance overhaul, the federal government is to pay the full cost of that for the first three years.
What the state is doing for schools is usually one of the most debated parts of the budget -- partly out of concern for students and partly for economic reasons. New Jersey's schools take up most of the average homeowner's highest-in-the-nation $7,900 property tax bill. Christie and lawmakers have a 2 percent cap on property tax growth, but less state funding still often means that homeowners are asked to pay more.
Overall, the Republican is calling for $9 billion in aid to schools -- an increase of nearly $100 million over this year. He says that no district would see a decrease in state aid, though the increases would be relatively small for most that get them.
"Our student achievement ranks high among the states," said Christie, a possible presidential contender in 2016, "but it does not rank high everywhere in our state. And we should settle for nothing less than being the very best in education."
But his ideas often bother groups like teachers unions, which say that expanding choice for students ultimately can drain needed funding from struggling schools -- not to mention cost their members jobs.
He's asking lawmakers to approve $2 million to give 200 low-income students in struggling districts scholarships up to $10,000 each. The scholarships could be used to pay tuition at private schools or out-of-district public schools.
A bigger version of the program, known as Opportunity Scholarships, has been introduced several times in the Legislature. The broader plan calls for financing the system by giving companies tax breaks in exchange for donations. Despite support from some Democrats and some Republicans, big rallies backing it and Christie promoting it, it's never gotten much traction.
Christie also is asking to increase the Interdistrict Public School Choice Program's funding to $49 million from the current $33 million. The once-modest program now has 107 school districts across the state that are approved to receive students who live in other communities -- with the state picking up the tab.
Christie is calling for increasing state funding for charter schools -- which are publicly funded but operate outside of regular school district controls -- to $16 million from the current $13.1 million.
The Democrats who control the Legislature say they are glad that Christie is increasing aid to schools overall.
But it's not clear how the school-choice proposals will fare.
"They send a signal that the governor's invested in conceptually and with some dollars supporting school choice initiatives," said Lynne Strickland, executive director of the Garden State Coalition of Schools, whose members are mostly middle-class districts. "How that will be received at large remains to be seen."
In other proposals, Christie is calling for delaying property tax credits from May to August to cover a projected shortfall during the budget year that ends June 30; setting aside $40 million in the current budget to pay for Superstorm Sandy-related expenses not covered by the federal government and using more than $40 million in state and federal money to help move some developmentally disabled adults from large institutions to group homes.
The budget also calls for $1.6 billion in payments to the public employee pension system, a commitment the administration made when landmark pension and health benefits changes were enacted two years ago. Those changes required union workers to pay more for retirement and medical benefits, changes Christie said were necessary to shore up the underfunded systems.
Christie's likely challenger in the gubernatorial race, Sen. Barbara Buono, said afterward that Christie's priorities "are wrong for New Jersey." She said the budget does not address the state's persistently high unemployment rate, which was 9.6 percent in December, more than a full percentage point above the federal rate.
Associated Press reporters Angela Delli Santi and Rema Rahman contributed to this report.
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