School Funding Conspiracy?

Paul Mulshine has spent this gubernatorial election mourning Steve Lonegan’s loss in the GOP primary and dividing his scorn between Corzine and Christie. In this weekend’s Wall Street Journal he narrows his focus to what he considers to be the major issue at stake tomorrow: the State Supreme Court’s role in school funding. Mulshine writes,

The result is a perennial property-tax crisis. The court sends more than half of the state aid to 31 largely urban “special needs” school districts, the special needs of which were for the most part created by decades of Democratic mismanagement. The remaining 554 largely suburban towns fight over the rest.

He adds,

Suburban property taxes are high because the state Supreme Court has turned the property-tax system into a massive scheme to transfer wealth from the suburbs to the cities. Thanks to the court’s meddling, Mendham [Christie’s hometown] gets back in education aid a mere 4% of the tax dollars paid by its residents to the state. That’s typical for a suburb. Asbury Park gets back 800% and Newark 600%.

Paranoia aside, the imbalance in state education funding that Mulshine addresses is real. But what’s the alternative in a state divided into 566 municipalities with dramatically disparate swings of wealth and poverty? Abandon the children of Camden and Trenton to public schools hypothetically funded by non-existent ratables and allow toney towns in Bergen County to create separate and unequal gilded academies of learning?

Point to Mulshine. We’ve pretty much proven here in Jersey that funneling massive amounts of cash to segregated high-needs districts doesn’t work. But redistributing the money without reconfiguring the infrastructure won’t work either, not if the goal is creating a public school system that is efficient and fair, offering all kids at least a semblance of equitable education. It’s not just the distribution of cash that signifies imbalance; it’s also the shameful segregation of our poorest kids into our weakest schools.

There’s inequity in our Supreme Court-driven aid distribution, certainly. There’s also inequity among our school districts. One could argue that we’ve tried to resolve the latter at the expense of the former. Mulshine is arguing to resolve the former at the expense of the latter. Neither approach solves the problem.

What will? Politically unattractive options like county magnet schools, a robust system of school choice that allows kids to cross municipal boundaries, meaningful competition, expansion of charter schools. Can we deal with a little ugly in exchange for a little progress?

What do you think?

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