Experts Reject Christie’s School Funding Idea: Steal from Poorest Schools to Aid Rich Suburbs

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.

Jersey Jazzman: “The Prize” Is Strong on Politics, Weak on Policy

Mark Weber, who blogs as Jersey Jazzman, is a New Jersey public school teacher and a Ph.D. candidate in school finance at Rutgers University.  He read Dale Russakoff’s The Prize, about the five year experiment on Newark’s children by then-mayor Cory Booker, Governor Chris Christie, and philanthropist-Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, and he explains, “As a literary work, I enjoyed The Prize. Dale Russakoff is a fine writer, and her detailing of the politics behind the effort to reform Newark’s schools is compelling and important.  But as a source for data points about Newark’s schools and the results of those reform efforts, The Prize comes up short.”  Weber has published his analysis, The (Mis-)Use of Data in Dale Russakoff’s The Prize, at the New Jersey Education Policy Forum.

Weber understands that as a writer, Russakoff used the stories of particular schools to illustrate her report on Newark’s schools, but he alleges that when she uses data to back up her analysis or generalize from the stories of two particular schools whose staffs she interviews at length, she elects not to use data from the state of New Jersey that is both verifiable and widely available.  Carefully analyzing the data that New Jersey provides about public schools across the state, Weber contradicts several of Russakoff’s themes: that Newark Public Schools (NPS) suffer from budgetary bloat due to poor allocation of funds while Newark’s charters are more efficient; that charter schools provide much deeper support for students by adding extra professionals like social workers; and that Newark’s public schools poorly serve the children due to a weak teaching staff.

Do Newark’s schools suffer from budgetary bloat while charters are more efficient?  Weber cites data from Bruce Baker the national school finance expert: “In 2010, Dr. Bruce Baker analyzed the relative per pupil spending of NPS with controls for differences in wage costs and poverty.  Newark is ranked at the 8.5 percentile nationally, and at the 12.4 percentile in New Jersey.”  After comparing data that is publicly available, Weber explains that, “NPS spends far more per pupil on education support services than any Newark charter school,” and “NPS has a lower per pupil administrative cost than any charter school in the city.” He adds that charters do not incur the same kind of costs as the district schools, because host school districts must cover “transportation, food services, tuition payments for out-of-district placements, debt service, and so forth.”  Weber compares costs for custodial services in Newark’s public and charter schools because, as he notes, “A running theme of The Prize is that a large portion of an urban school district’s budget goes to patronage employment, which leads to ‘bloated payrolls’ that divert funds away from instruction… The notion that inordinately high salaries due to patronage keep plant costs high is contradicted by the fact that NPS’s plant expenses are right at the median when compared to Newark’s charter schools.”

Do Newark’s charter schools do a better job of serving students and their families by hiring more support professionals? “Russakoff spends much of The Prize describing two Newark schools: BRICK Avon, a K-8 elementary school that is part of the Newark Public Schools (NPS), and SPARK Academy, one of the schools that is part of the TEAM/KIPP charter school network.”  Russakoff emphasizes the number of school social workers at the KIPP school and the lack of any social worker at the public school. Weber explains, however, that BRICK Avon’s lack of a social worker is an anomaly in the Newark Public Schools, and though it lacks a social worker, the school is staffed with a school psychologist and a counselor, while the KIPP school has neither.  The public school also has access to support professionals employed at the district level, professionals who move among several buildings.

Are Newark’s public schools staffed with weak teachers while the teachers at the city’s charters are more effective?  Weber charges that Russakoff simply failed to investigate this issue and instead relied on received wisdom from the people with whom she spoke in Newark.  “Many of the protagonists in The Prize believe that NPS schools suffer from poor teacher quality.  Russakoff dutifully reports their misgivings; what she doesn’t do is challenge them to show that the poorest performing schools in the system have the weakest teachers.  Nor does she explore how teacher characteristics changed following (Cami) Anderson’s ‘Renewal’ plan.  In my 2015 testimony to the JCPS (Joint Committee on Public Schools), I presented evidence on how the teaching staffs at the ‘Renew’ schools had changed following their reconstitution…. (S)taffs had become less experienced and had fewer black members following ‘renewal.’  Both teacher experience and teacher-student racial alignment (particularly for racial minority students) have been found to be beneficial for student achievement outcomes… Teacher quality is a central theme of The Prize, yet Russakoff spends little time exploring how teaching staffs have changed in Newark under the reforms brought about by the Zuckerberg donation.”

Weber concludes: “Russakoff presents too many figures out of their proper context.  She relies on single comparisons rather than looking at the entirety of the city’s public district schools and its charter sector.  Her use of proprietary data that cannot be vetted is unwarranted, especially when public data is available.  And she does not adequately challenge the assertions of the ‘reformers’ in her story, potentially leading her readers to conclusions that are not borne out by the available evidence… (T)he notions that NPS  is an unusually bloated system, or that charter schools divert more funds toward student instruction, or that Newark’s ‘reformers’ have accurately identified its poorest-performing schools, are simply not supported by the evidence… (W)hile The Prize is a worthy read for its political narrative, its misapplication of data renders it inadequate as an analysis of education policy.”

Reports Add Up to Show Charter Fraud, Charter Failure, and Incapacity to Realize What Was Promised

In a new blog post Gene V. Glass, who, earlier this year with David Berliner published the excellent 50 Myths & Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools, recently posted, Are Charter Schools Greenhouses for Innovation and Creativity?  Glass declares: “The rationale for the charter school movement went something like this: ‘Public education is being crushed by bureaucratic regulation and strangled by teacher unions.  There is no room left for creative innovation; and tired, old traditional educators have run out of energy and ideas.  Let free choice reign!’ It sounded good, especially to people who were clueless about how schools actually run.  How have things actually worked out?  What new, revolutionary ideas have come out of the charter school movement that can teach us all about how to better educate the nation’s children?”  Glass describes the conclusion in his and Berliner’s new book: “that in our opinion the vast majority of charter schools were underperforming traditional K-12 public schools and that the charter school industry was shot through with fraud and mismanagement.”  You’ll have to check out his blog post to read the story of his confrontation with two young charter teachers who recently tried to prove to him that their school was more innovative than the surrounding public school district only to learn that the International Baccalaureate program their charter had just launched was introduced ten years ago and continues to be offered in the public schools.  Berliner’s critique of charters comes among a recent rash of news reports about the woes of the charter sector.

This blog just covered Robin Lake’s despairing critique of the charter school catastrophe in Detroit.  “No one in Detroit is responsible for ensuring that all neighborhoods and students have high-quality options or that parents have the information and resources they need to choose a school.  ‘It’s a free-for-all,’ one observer said. ‘We have all these crummy schools around, and nobody can figure out how to get quality back under control…’”  Lake is the executive director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education which has made the promotion of “portfolio school reform” (in which the portfolio contains a mix of public and charter schools from which parents can choose) its primary mission.  Her recent piece  suggests that she, a central promoter of charter schools, has no idea how to rein in school choice gone wild in Detroit.

Like Michigan, Texas is struggling to regulate the quality of its charter schools. The NY Times reports that one charter school district, the Honors Academy Charter chain, is currently operating seven schools even though Honors Academy Charters were formally closed under a 2013 law due to poor performance.  “Well into the new school year, all seven Honors Academy schools, which enroll a total of almost 700 students in Central Texas and the Dallas-Fort Worth area, are still open,” despite that the district has lost its contract and its accreditation.  Although, “The state ordered the charter operator to turn over student records and its remaining state funds, and to find alternatives for its students,” “Honors Academy officials… decided to open their doors anyway.  They have argued that the provision forcing closure is unconstitutional.” Costs are being covered by $3.5 million left over from last year, most of it revenue from the state.   According to state officials, because the schools are now unaccredited, students attending Honors Academy schools will be unable to transfer coursework.  Parents interviewed by the reporter in the parking lot were unaware that the school had lost its charter to operate.

What is happening in North Carolina may not be illegal, but it ought to be. In his column Taking Note, PBS education correspondent John Merrow recently skewered Baker Mitchell, the North Carolina “businessman who has figured out a completely legal way to extract millions of dollars from North Carolina in payment for his public charter schools… Even though none of his publicly-funded schools is set up to run ‘for profit,’ about $19,000,000 of the $55,000,000 he has received in public funds has gone to his own for-profit businesses, which manage many aspects of the schools.”  This blog covered Baker Mitchell’s schools here.

Mark Weber, writing for New Jersey Spotlight, echoes Gene Glass’s critique that charter schools have never as a sector fulfilled what was promised.  Weber co-authored a recent report from Rutgers University that used readily available data from the state to demonstrate that charter schools segregate students. (This blog covered the Rutgers report here.)  In his short review for New Jersey Spotlight, Weber concludes: “On average, charters educate proportionately fewer students in economic disadvantage… than do the district schools in their communities.  Charters also educate fewer students with special education needs; further the students with those needs that charters do educate tend to have less costly disabilities.  In addition, the sector enrolls very few students who are English language learners.”  “‘Choice’ in schooling will likely lead to what we found in our report: the concentration of economically disadvantaged, special education, and Limited English Proficient students within district schools…  I see three core challenges in New Jersey’s urban schools: segregation, inadequate school funding, and child poverty.  None of these challenges will be solved by the expansion of charter schools.”