In late June, Governor Chris Christie proposed an amendment to New Jersey’s state constitution for the purpose of imposing a new flat school funding plan across his state. Christie’s new idea is to give every school district across New Jersey the same per pupil state aid of $6,599. It would be up to local school districts to make up for cuts in what they now receive from the state, even though most poor school districts do not have the fiscal capacity to raise the rest. Christie’s stated reason is to lower taxes in the wealthy suburbs that have already been able to raise most of their school funding locally by levying millage on their local property.
In late June, the NY Times editorial board summarized the plan: “(A) flat amount would make it impossible for poor communities to provide a sound education for disadvantaged children who need classrooms with more resources. The state is required by law to send more money to those communities because they simply don’t have the tax base or property values to raise additional revenues on their own. The New Jersey Supreme Court mandated this approach in Abbott v. Burke, a case named for Raymond Abbott, a student in Camden who received no services for a learning disability and was barely literate at the age of 15. The court ruled in 1990, and in many rulings since, that New Jersey was bound by the State Constitution to fund districts at a level that allows all children to receive an education that enables them to participate in the economy and a democratic society… The 31 New Jersey school districts…known as ‘Abbott Districts’ educate nearly a quarter of the state’s students, more than 40 percent of its poor children and 56 percent of its English language learners.”
Christie’s plan would neither account for the disparities in school districts’ capacities to raise local revenue (disparities growing from the very different valuation of taxable property from school district to school district) nor recognize a central principle of educational equity, namely that some children need more services at school and those services cost money. The political philosopher Benjamin Barber defines this principle clearly in his 1992 book on public education, An Aristocracy of Everyone: “Equality is achieved not by handicapping the swiftest, but by assuring the less advantaged a comparable opportunity. ‘Comparable’ here does not mean identical… Schooling allows those born poor to compete with those born rich; allows immigrants to feel as American as the self-proclaimed daughters and sons of the American Revolution; allows African-Americans, whose ancestors were brought here in bondage, to fight for the substance (rather than just the legal forms) of their freedom.” (p. 13) While Christie’s proposal would provide extra money for children who qualify for services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, a federal requirement that even Chris Christie can’t ignore, his plan would help wealthy suburban school districts by increasing their state funding and would suck state money out of the property-poor and racially segregated school districts that serve the mass of New Jersey’s poorest children, including immigrant children who need more expensive services to help them learn English.
Christie has also alleged that the property-poor school districts that received additional state aid under the Abbott school finance case have been spending outlandishly; his new plan, he says, would bring them in line. The Education Law Center explains that Christie has been manipulating the numbers, and if Christie’s flawed calculation of school spending is corrected to account for students’ special needs, it is clear that New Jersey’s richest suburbs—the ones Christie would help with his new flat plan—are the districts already spending the most relative to the needs of their students: “The most accurate way to compare resources in NJ districts is using a calculation—‘funding per weighted pupil’—that acknowledges that the cost of educating students is not the same, but varies based on the characteristics of a district’s enrollment… The concept is simple and universally accepted in education finance: children at risk from family and community poverty, those who are learning English, and students with disabilities need additional supports and interventions, and districts need additional funds to pay for them.” And in New Jersey, “When calculated by weighted per pupil funding, 44 of the top 100 districts are high wealth, and only four are low wealth… Far from having ‘extravagant’ funding as the Governor claims, 26 of the … Abbotts are in the bottom half of districts in the state when ranked by weighted per pupil funding….” And in fact, since Christie became New Jersey’s governor, the state has quietly been increasing funding for high wealth school districts and slowly decreasing the state’s support for the districts that serve the state’s poorest children.
The Education Law Center has also calculated the financial impact of Governor Christie’s flat funding proposal, and it is devastating: “”(U)nder the Governor’s plan, 143 districts would have their budges cut, with the poorest districts bearing the overwhelming brunt of the aid cuts. These 78 low wealth districts would lose, on average, a staggering $7,417 per pupil, representing 40% of their total operating budgets. Fifty-six middle wealth districts would be cut an average of $1,494 per pupil, or 8% of their operating budgets. In sharp contrast, all 129 high wealth districts… would not be cut but instead would receive a huge influx as state aid is transferred from the poorer districts.” Overall it is estimated that low and middle wealth districts would be forced to lay off 29,000 staff as a result of Christie’s redistribution of state school aid.
In two research briefs published this summer, school finance experts at Rutgers University evaluate Christie’s plan. In How Fair is the ‘Fairness Formula’ for New Jersey School Children & Taxpayers? Mark Weber and Ajay Srikanth explain Christie’s justification for a new school funding plan: “Governor Christie has touted his plan on the basis of several claims: that suburban school districts are overtaxed, that urban districts collect relatively small amounts of local taxes to support their schools, and that urban districts have not shown improvement even with large infusions of state aid.” Weber and Srikanth note that lowering taxes for the rich ought not to be the goal of a school finance formula. While tax bills for residents’ of New Jersey’s wealthy suburbs may be high, it is because their incomes are considerable: “As a percentage of income, New Jersey’s wealthiest districts have the smallest effective school property tax rates.”
What about Christie’s claim that New Jersey’s school funding for the state’s 31 Abbott Districts has failed to improve student achievement? Weber and Srikanth review a number of reports that measure academic improvement by test scores. Some districts have succeeded better than others, of course, but overall: “The National Assessment of Education Progress… scores in fourth-grade reading and mathematics in central cities rose 21 and 22 points respectively between the mid-1990s and 2007… Eighth-grade NAEP scores are available starting in 2003. Between 2003 and 2007, scores for the urban districts rose six points in eighth-grade reading and 18 points in eighth-grade mathematics, a considerably higher rate of growth than in the suburbs and statewide.” “It is, admittedly, difficult to separate the effects of school funding reform from other potential causes of the growth in test scores for New Jersey’s at-risk and LEP (Limited English Proficient) students. This evidence, however, clearly contradicts the claim that the period of funding reform was a time of ‘failure’ for the schools that serve New Jersey’s most disadvantaged students.”
Last week, Bruce Baker and Mark Weber followed up with a new brief demonstrating that New Jersey’s 2008, affirmatively equitable School Funding Reform Plan has not, as Christie alleges, made school funding in New Jersey inefficient in the poorest school districts. This paper is extremely technocratic: “Efficiency analysis can be viewed from either of two perspectives: production efficiency or cost efficiency. Production efficiency… measures the outcomes of organizational units such as schools or districts given their inputs and given the circumstances under which production occurs. That is, which schools or districts get the most bang for the buck? Cost efficiency is essentially the flip side of production efficiency. In cost efficiency analyses, the goal is to determine the minimum ‘cost’ at which a given level of outcomes can be produced under given circumstances. That is, what’s the minimum amount of bucks we need to spend to bet the bang we desire?”
Let’s recognize some discomfort here with considering school districts as production units, students as products, and standardized test scores as the way to measure students’ progress.
But given Bruce Baker’s standing as a national school funding expert, what does he think about Christie’s contention that New Jersey’s current equitable system is inefficient? “Contrary to current political rhetoric, New Jersey’s least efficient producers of student achievement gains are not the state’s large… Abbott districts—largely poor urban districts that benefited most in terms of state aid increases resulting from decades of litigation over school funding equity and adequacy. While some Abbott districts such as Asbury Park and Hoboken rate poorly on estimates of relative efficiency, other relatively inefficient local public school districts include some of the state’s most affluent suburban districts and small, segregated shore towns.” “Put bluntly, the Governor’s proposal not only fails on a) tax equity and b) student funding equity, as previously explained by Weber and Srikanth, but the ‘Fairness Formula’ proposal also fails on the more conservative economic argument of ‘efficient’ allocation of taxpayer dollars.”
This blog has previously covered Christie’s flat school funding plan here.