Gov. Christie and Legislature Fail to Fund School Formula, Create Crisis for Newark’s Schools

The Prize—Dale Russakoff’s book about the plan put in place by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and then Newark Mayor Cory Booker to charterize Newark’s schools and recruit Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg to pay for it—is listed by the NY Times as one of the top 100 books of the year.  It is a fascinating tale of political intrigue and the imposition of the ideology of “school disruption” on the public schools in a very poor community. In September, this blog covered The Prize here and here.

Russakoff’s book isn’t, however, as strong on the gritty fiscal realities for the Newark Public Schools, though the book does demonstrate many of the ways Christie’s overseer superintendent, Cami Anderson, squandered a lot of Zuckerberg’s money, nearly a quarter of it on expensive consultants. Right after Thanksgiving,  the Education Law Center released a report that clarifies the financial realities for the Newark School District that are harder to patch together from Russakoff’s book.

Mark Zuckerberg’s one-time gift of $100 million to underwrite the Christie-Booker charter school experiment pales compared to what the Education Law Center’s new report explains is a $132 million shortfall in state funding for the current school year due to Governor Chris Christie’s refusal to fund the state’s court-ordered school finance plan: “Newark last received the increases required by New Jersey’s school funding formula—the School Funding Reform Act… in 2011-12, when the State Supreme Court ordered Governor Christie to restore the $42 million cut from Newark’s budget in 2010.  Since then, the Governor has refused to fund the formula, resulting in an over $132 million shortfall in state aid to Newark Public Schools in 2015-2016.”

Complicating Newark Public Schools’ problems has been the rapid expansion of charter schools, the centerpiece of the Christie-Booker-Zuckerberg One Newark plan implemented by Cami Anderson.  The Education Law Center explains: “Under New Jersey’s charter law, Newark charter schools receive funding through payments from the Newark Public Schools budget.  Charters are funded on a per pupil basis and are entitled to 90% of the sum of the district’s local levy and State equalization aid…. Charters receive additional aid for enrollment growth even when the district’s overall funding does not increase…. Payments to charter schools have first priority in district spending—they cannot be reduced to address shortfalls in the district budget.”

The report continues with details about benefits for charter schools: “As noted above, Newark Public Schools has not received any increase in state aid since 2011-12… However, Newark Public Schools payments to charter schools have increased rapidly as the (state) Department of Education has allowed charter enrollment to expand each year.  In 2008-09, Newark Public Schools payments to charter schools totaled $60 million.  By 2015-16, Newark Public Schools charter school payments increased to $225 million, representing 27% of the Newark Public Schools operating budget.”

Meanwhile as charter schools have attracted students away from Newark Public Schools, the concentration of students with special education needs and of English language learners has grown in the public schools.  The percentage of special education students has increased from 14% to 17% since 2008-09, and the percentage of English language learners has grown during the same period from 9% to 11%.  These are students who cost more to educate.

What does all this mean for the average student in Newark’s public schools?  “Total spending dropped by 20% between 2008-09 and 2014-15, a $2,971 per pupil reduction.  Spending on regular instruction—teachers, curriculum, books, etc.—was cut 35% or $1,610 per pupil.  Support services were significantly reduced (-20%), with especially large cuts in media services/library, attendance and social work, and guidance. Spending for students with disabilities and those learning English was dramatically reduced… Newark Public Schools spending per pupil has declined rapidly relative to other districts in the state. In 2008-09 only 35% of districts spent more per pupil than Newark Public Schools.  By 2014-15, 87% of districts were outspending Newark Public Schools.”

When the Zuckerberg-funded plan was implemented in 2012, Newark Public Schools abandoned another school reform initiative that many people believed was showing great promise. Newark’s mayor Ras Baraka, then the principal of Central High School, recently described in a piece he wrote for the Hechinger Report the Newark Global Village School Zone. Baraka explains: “Global Village was a reform strategy based upon an expanded conception of education that addresses the importance of academic skills and knowledge, as well as the development of the whole child.  The Village brought social service agencies, community based organizations, business, universities, and families together to build partnerships that supported the instructional and educational goals of schools in the Global Village network.  Quitman Street School and Central High School, where I was principal, along with five other schools in Newark’s Central Ward, collaborated with New York University to develop the Global Village strategy from 2009 until the (Christie-Booker-Zuckerberg) Renew strategy was implemented in 2012. Community partnerships, school-based professional development and collaboration, academic enrichment, extended learning time, and integration of student supports were core to our improvement plans.”

Community Schools bring medical and social services right into the school to work with the families and the children.  Baraka seeks to return to the model in place before the grand disruption paid for by Zuckerberg and implemented by Cami Anderson: “A city-wide Community Schools strategy is vital to ensuring our schools develop the capacity needed to help every child…. We declare that Newark is Ground Zero for Community Schools. We must recover from our losses, and build upon our successes….”

The Foundation for Newark’s Future, the philanthropy created in Newark to distribute Zuckerberg’s gift and the matching funds it attracted, is now almost out of money. The Associated Press recently reported, that to accomplish Baraka’s vision, “The Foundation for Newark’s Future will invest $1.2 million now and up to $12.5 million total on two initiatives…. The money to launch the South Ward Community Schools Initiative and Newark Opportunity Youth Network marks one of the final donations the foundation will make, five years after Zuckerberg committed the money.”

That what’s left of Zuckerberg’s money will be invested in Community Schools is a positive thing.  That Governor Christie and the legislature continue to cut state funding for Newark’s schools—despite that a court order mandates additional funds be distributed through the state’s funding formula—will, however, unquestionably leave Newark Public Schools short of needed money.

Why Checks and Balances Need to Include the Courts

Just last week the Education Law Center, whose attorneys have litigated the landmark New Jersey school funding case in Abbott v. Burke, announced that the Education Law Center has “joined the legal teams in Maisto v. State of New York and Bacon v. NJ Department of Education, lawsuits on behalf of students in 8 Small City New York school districts and 16 poor, rural, New Jersey districts, respectively.  These cases challenge deep resource deficits and unconstitutionally low funding by each State, in violation of their state constitutions.”

It would be so nice to think that when school districts are short of money, citizens would raise their taxes to pay for what’s needed for the children. What does it say about our society that funding our schools has become deeply contentious?

According to the Education Law Center, the towns bringing the lawsuit in New York are Jamestown, Kingston, Mount Vernon, Newburgh, Niagara Falls, Port Jervis, Poughkeepsie, and Utica. Together they serve 55,000 students.  All have poverty rates over 50 percent; in at least one community the poverty rate is 94 percent. “All have low property wealth and income and have experienced substantial shortfalls and state cuts in school funding in recent years.”

In New Jersey, attorneys say that a remedial order from the New Jersey Department of Education in 2009 ordered that students in 16 rural districts be fully funded under the School Funding Reform Act of 2008.  The state has not complied.  David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center commented: “Governor Chris Christie’s stubborn resistance to investing in our children leaves no alternative but to take appropriate legal action.”  In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo continues to promise tax cuts as part of his platform for reelection this coming November.

Being free from such court oversight to enforce the mandates of a state constitution appeals to Chad Readler, a Columbus, Ohio attorney who chairs Ohio’s Constitutional Modernization Commission.  Readler is also, according to Karen Kesler of StateImpact Ohio, the chairman of the Ohio Alliance of Public Charter Schools.  Kesler updates earlier reports that Readler’s goal is to have the Constitutional Modernization Commission remove protection for school funding from Ohio’s constitution by deleting this clause: “The General Assembly shall provide and fund a thorough and efficient system of common school throughout the state.” Kesler quotes Readler:  “That language has been used as a vehicle to take those disputes to court and have judges set our education policy rather than boards of education and legislatures.  And in my mind that’s a concern.  I think that boards of education and legislatures are better equipped to address education policy issues.”  (This blog most recently posted on the Ohio controversy here.)

Kesler interviews members of the Ohio Senate and the Ohio House serving on the Constitutional Modernization Commission who agree with Readler and want to remove the language that makes school funding justiciable in Ohio.  They say they want the Ohio Constitution to protect school choice instead.  Kesler also quotes Charlie Wilson, a professor at the college of law at the Ohio State University, who “fears if that language is removed, there would be no right to public education in Ohio, because the U.S. Supreme court has already held that education is not a federal fundamental right and has left it to the states.” Wilson comments, “If there’s not some kind of enforcement mechanism, then it’s very easy for the General Assembly to ignore the Constitution, and then you get to the question of why even bother having a Constitution.”