The Tragic Folly of Fair School Funding
“Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler” – Albert Einstein
On Monday, June 21, Governor Christie added his voice to a growing number of government officials seeking to equalize state aid for all students regardless of where they live. This means that there would be a redistribution of state aid from economically poorer and largely urban school districts to wealthier suburban school Districts. At face value this strategy would satisfy the Governor’s statement that “No child in this state is worth more state aid than another” and that the redistribution would relieve the burden of school funding on local property taxes.
Like the quote from Einstein that instructs us to make matters as simple as possible without being simplistic, this strategy over simplifies the matter by failing to appreciate two critical factors:
Equal funding does not equate to appropriate or equitable funding. It would be a tragic mistake for many needy students if policy makers fail to appreciate the difference. All school districts are not the same. There exists a broad continuum or range of educational services and supports required by one school district compared to another to provide an appropriate education for those students within those districts. On one end of the continuum you have a suburban school district such as Rockaway Boro in Morris County which (according to the data issued by the Department of Education1) spends an average of $13,770 per student/year. These suburban school districts generally feature a higher percentage of intact families, a higher level of household education and income, a lower crime and drug, alcohol and addiction rates. On the other end of the continuum you have an urban school district such as Camden City at $26,998 per student/year. The demographic profile of this school district is the opposite of Rockaway Boro – fewer intact families, higher domestic stress and emotional trauma, lower level of household education and income, greater drug and alcohol addiction and higher crime rates. Consequently, the student population who is already lagging further behind academically (for reasons outside of the school’s control) will require more services, supports and remedial programs to provide an appropriate education so that these students can catch up, succeed and achievement gaps be closed. Thus, it makes sense that the inner city schools, already economically depressed, will require a disproportionately high amount of state aid to provide an appropriate and equitable education for those students. To equalize state aid throughout the state would be morally wrong and cause catastrophic academic collapse within the urban school districts.
The redistribution plan in theory will provide substantially more state aid to the suburban schools – on the order of an additional $6,599 per student/year. This is supposed to lessen the burden on school support derived from local property taxes which intuitively would provide much needed property tax reduction for suburban towns. First, consider that New Jersey spends $17,572 per student each year. The national average is just $10,7002. That’s right; New Jersey’s average annual per student spend is 164% of the national average! Only New York and Alaska are higher. New Jersey has by far the highest starting teacher salaries in the nation. This data, indicating hyper-spending, would only be exacerbated by the windfall that would be coming to the suburban school districts through this redistribution plan. History has taught us that when it comes to government, the more money made available for spending just gets spent, not saved. This redistribution plan, rather than saving the taxpayer a dime, would trigger a spending spree that will no doubt be the dream of every school administrator in the state. If there is to be property tax relief, there needs to be spending reduction, not redistribution. That is the only way for property tax relief to be achieved.
In conclusion, the idea of redistributing state aid makes the critical error of being simplistic and thus overlooks the consequences of such a plan, namely, it 1) denies inner city students an appropriate education and 2) avoids the only path to tax relief – lower spending.
In the column for next month, I will describe a legislative plan proposed by The Center for Garden State Families for reducing public school spending to achieve meaningful property tax relief while actually enhancing the opportunities for each child to receive an appropriate education. This legislation is currently residing in the Office of Legislative Services and should be introduced by the end of the summer.
1 - http://www.nj.com/education/2015/04/nj_schools_how_much_is_your_district_spending_per.html
2 - Governing.com