Even New Jersey, the State with the Best Funded Schools, Needs a 2nd Federal COVID-19 Relief Bill

In the midst of the COVID-19 recession, even New Jersey, the state with the nation’s best school funding system, can’t maintain its constitutional obligation without additional federal help through the relief package which was first proposed by the U.S. House of Representatives in May.  U.S. Senate Republicans have refused to consider a second COVID-19 relief bill through the whole summer and into the fall, but discussions had revived in recent days.  Just yesterday, however, President Trump seemed to kill any chance that a second federal relief package will be forthcoming before the November election.

In New Jersey, the state supreme court has held New Jersey’s legislature accountable for fulfilling its constitutionally defined responsibility to fund the state’s public schools.  In his 2013 book, Improbable Scholars, David Kirp, a professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley, describes the long series of decisions in New Jersey’s state constitutional case of Abbott v. Burke: “Beginning in the early 1990s, additional help came from an unexpected source—the New Jersey Supreme Court.  Over the past half-century, those justices have acquired a reputation for the boldness and controversiality of their opinions… None of the court’s decrees has made a bigger splash or taken a bigger bite out of the state treasury than the epic school finance case Abbott. v. Burke. In twenty-one decrees issued over the course of nearly three decades, the justices have read the state’s constitutional guarantee of ‘a thorough and efficient system of education’ as a charter of equality for urban youth. That 1875 provision, and the court in its historic 1990 ruling, Abbott II, meant that youngsters living in poor cities were entitled to an education as good as their suburban counterparts… Money cannot cure all the ailments of public education…. But the fact that New Jersey spends more than $16,000 per student, third in the nation, partly explains why a state in which nearly half the students are minorities and a disproportionate share are immigrants has the country’s highest graduation rate and ranks among the top five on the National Assessment of Education Progress, the country’s report card. The additional money also helps to account for how New Jersey halved the achievement gap between black, Latino, and white students between 1999 and 2007.” (Improbable Scholars, pp. 83-85)

However, pledges to rectify inequity depend on annual appropriations that sometimes don’t keep up with the promises. Even New Jersey has fallen behind in recent years.  While New Jersey has continued to increase school funding, which averaged $21,866 per pupil last year, over the last decade, the state has fallen behind in its pledge to fully fund its school formula:  POLITICO’s Carly Sitrin reports that, “new research suggests New Jersey’s failure to fully fund its approach to education spending after achieving those goals has left a significant gap between white and Latinx students.” And the problem has worsened this year as the state has fallen into recession due to COVID-19.

Sitrin explains: “Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy made a campaign promise to fix that situation by fully funding the formula—even cut a deal with the state’s legislative leaders to do that. But the pandemic-induced economic downturn has put that effort on pause, leading Murphy on Tuesday to sign a state budget that keeps school funding flat. The move sets back the state’s seven-year commitment to achieve equity in spending for all children… Yet, Murphy and state lawmakers are celebrating the flat funding as a success. After all, they say, the state didn’t have to cut school aid during a pandemic that devastated revenues. At the same time, they’re hoping the federal government will come through with rescue aid next year.”

A long problem in school funding is that too many states have failed to get back on track after recessions. The 2018-2019, Red4Ed wave of teachers’ strikes and walkouts across the states—from West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Arizona to Los Angeles, Oakland, and Chicago—were an attempt by schoolteachers across the states to draw attention to class sizes of 40 students; widespread shortages of counselors, school social workers, librarians and school nurses; and teachers’ salaries so low that many could not afford the rent on a one-bedroom apartment in the communities where they were teaching.  These were the lingering effects—a decade later—of the 2008 recession.

The question now is how much the COVID-19 recession will further depress state spending on healthcare, colleges and universities, K-12 public education, and other state functions. Until yesterday, a second federal COVID-19 relief bill had seemed at least possible. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and White House negotiator Steven Mnuchin had revived discussions last week. But yesterday afternoon, the Washington Post‘s Erica Werner and Jeff Stein reported that President Trump abruptly called off any negotiations for a second stimulus bill until after the election: “Economic relief talks screeched to a halt Tuesday as President Trump ordered Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to stop negotiating with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi until after the election…  Trump’s surprising announcement stood in stark contrast with recommendations from Federal Reserve Chair Jerome H. Powell, who had said in a speech hours earlier that more economic stimulus was needed to sustain the recovery… Barring another unexpected development, Trump’s declaration kills any near-term chance of new aid for millions of Americans who remain out work and at risk of eviction. Pelosi and Mnuchin spoke shortly after Trump’s tweets, and Mnuchin informed Pelosi that the negotiations were indeed over…”  Assistance for the state governments that support roughly 40 percent of school funding across the states had been part of the discussions.

In, Schoolhouse Burning: Public Education and the Assault on American Democracy, a new book on the importance of the nation’s founding principles—guaranteed in the federal founding documents and in the 50 state constitutions, Derek Black emphasizes that these documents have made it possible for states like New Jersey to maintain their constitutional commitment to education, at least when times were not so hard as the current recession.  And even in bad times, such documents help us remember how far we are straying from our society’s most basic commitments.

The New Jersey Supreme Court’s Abbott v. Burke decisions to protect equitable school funding are among the best examples across the states of Black’s argument: “The foregoing principles—the right to an adequate and equal education, making education the state’s absolute and foremost duty, requiring states to exert the necessary effort (financial or otherwise) to provide quality educational access, placing education above normal politics, and expecting courts to serve as a check—are all in the service of something larger: the original idea that education is the foundation of our constitutional democracy.  Education is the means by which citizens preserve their other rights. Education gives citizens the tools they need to hold their political leaders accountable…  Democracy simply does not work well without educated citizens.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 224)