TRENTON - Amid another budget crunch, New Jersey lawmakers are wrestling with a question of fairness: Is it better to give more state aid to school districts with the greatest need or to use the state's subsidy to help all schools equally?

Members of the Assembly Budget Committee posed questions about the issue to Education Commissioner David Hespe at a hearing Monday.

Education costs are a huge part of the state's budget each year. For the fiscal year that begins July 1, Gov. Christie's administration is calling for sending just under $8 billion - or nearly one-fourth of the proposed $34.4 billion state budget - to school districts to offset their costs. Add in payments for educators' pensions and benefits, and education costs for preschool through 12th grade, and the total rises to nearly $13 billion, or more than $1 of every $3 the state spends.

When it comes to direct support for schools, the state's spending is heavily tilted toward a group of lower-income districts, most in cities. That is largely the result of a series of state Supreme Court rulings that have found the state needs to do more for children there.

It is also a result of the relatively low property tax bases in those places. Most of the school budgets in suburban districts are raised through local property taxes.

Assemblyman Jay Webber (R., Morris) said that one town in his district - North Caldwell - is in line to get $233,000, or less than $350 per student. He compared that to Asbury Park, where the proposed allocation is $55 million, or about $28,000 per student.

"I know that the students in Asbury Park are facing some challenges that students in North Caldwell aren't," he said. "I'm not sure they're 79 times greater."

Hespe, an appointee of the Republican governor, said that urban schools get more to pay for teaching English to nonnative speakers, more special education programs, and health clinics, among other items. Hespe said that technical support from his department and other changes such as new curriculum standards might help struggling districts more than another major infusion of funding.

But then Hespe heard nearly the opposite complaint: that the state is not using a formula adopted by the Legislature in 2008 to determine school subsidies. The formula uses many factors, including poverty in the district. The Education Department said that if the state used the formula, it would mean more than $1 billion more for districts.

The biggest increase in direct aid to schools proposed by Christie for the coming year is $27 million that is to be given to each district at the same rate: $20 per student.

"Why do you invest in a well-performing district?" asked Assemblyman Joe Cryan (D., Union).