Today Gov. Phil Murphy gave his 2019 budget address. He’s proposing, as part of this 38.6 billion spending plan, an additional $351 million as the first step in his campaign promise to “fully fund” New Jersey’s school funding formula known as the 2008 School Funding Reform Act. SFRA is one in a series of funding formulas that attempts to comply with the 30-year-old Abbott v. Burke rulings. Those rulings accurately identified gross inequities between per pupil spending in rich districts and poor districts because, pre-Abbott, most school funding was based on local property taxes. Now, if Murphy’s budget passes, almost half of all state spending — $15.4 billion — will go to K-12 public schools. Equity is us, right?
Just a few days ago EdBuild released a report called “Twenty-Three Billion,” which is the national funding gap (in dollars) between white and nonwhite school districts, even though they serve the same number of children. Serendipitously (for New Jersey readers), the report opens with a quote from one of those famous Abbott rulings:
“There is progress, and there are some successes in education, but the central truth is that the poor remain plunged in poverty and severe educational deprivation… Our large black and hispanic population is more concentrated in poor urban areas and will remain isolated from the rest of society unless this educational deficiency in poorer urban districts is addressed.” — Abbott v Burke, 119 N.J. 287 (June 1990)
Question of the day: How well is New Jersey, nationally heralded for its progressive school funding formula, addressing the educational, geographical, and fiscal isolation identified in that 1990 Abbott ruling?
Grade (via EdBuild): A big fat F.
From the report:
[D]espite decades of lawsuits throughout the country, among the worst offenders are California, New York and New Jersey—the three states made famous by aggressive school funding lawsuits.
In other words, thirty years of pouring money into Abbott districts hasn’t achieved school spending equity in N.J. In fact, Edbuild calls the Abbott remedy akin to placing “a feather over a fissure.”
So why hasn’t Abbott worked? Its central premise — that extra funding compensates for segregation — is unassailable, right?
Not according to EdBuild. The only way to achieve equity is to chip away at local control because local control is inextricably tied to school funding and, “in the public’s mind, to the privilege that communities receive to run and fund neighborhood-based schools.” The financial reality, the researchers continue, “is that a geographically arranged set of school districts creates uneven distribution of wealth, and the inherent interest of keeping the control of schools close to the community creates an inequitable tax base from which schools can be funded.”
Think about it. Wealthy, mostly-white districts are small and rich. Poor mostly-not-white districts are big and poor. So the white wealthy districts have greater power through sheer number of council members and politicians, not to mention the privilege of access. This system is built upon decades, heck, centuries, of racist housing policies in which housing costs serve as a proxy for tuition to richer and higher-performing schools. Our fragmentation — 540 districts for 1.3 million students as opposed to, say, Maryland which divides 880,000 students into just twenty-four districts — makes everything worse.
From the report:
Taken together, our nonwhite school systems are more dependent on the state to give their students a fair chance at an equal education, but their voices have been limited by the geography of our system. This scheme of school district organization—where locally run schools remain needlessly tied to local control of taxes—is working for wealthy white communities that have the independent ability to raise more money, and have a stronger voice in the decisions we make related to funding policies. This same scheme is fundamentally failing our districts serving a concentrated high-poverty, nonwhite population of children.
To add insult to injury, school funding is inherently political, which means that privileged people — typically wealthy — get to influence policy. So we have Save Our Schools-NJ, which more aptly should be called “Screw Other Students-NJ,” trumpeting as its highest principle, “We believe publicly-funded schools should be democratically controlled by and accountable to their local communities, and uphold the highest values of those communities.”
You want numbers that verify the inherent inequity of basing school zoning on ZIP code and maintaining the heft of local control? EdBuild has numbers.
- New Jersey has 1.3 million students. Of those, 432,377 are low-income and nonwhite.
- Among all K-12 students, New Jersey spends $3,446 less on non-white students than white students.
- Among all low-income students, New Jersey spends $7,437 less on poor non-white students than on poor white students. (For context, the national average is $2,226 less.)
Our system, borne of our fetish for local control and our racist municipal boundaries, renders all “remedies” — including Abbott, including SFRA — worthless. The only way to change our system is politically unpalatable: Merge districts into counties (like Maryland) and give students in Trenton (Mercer County), for example, access to Princeton schools and students in Newark (Essex County) access to Millburn schools and give students in Camden (Camden County) access to Cherry Hill schools.
But maybe this isn’t impossible. Maybe I’m being too cynical. Maybe education advocates can look to Maryland, which consolidates districts into counties and where nonwhite districts receive $501 more per student than white districts. Or Virginia, also big on consolidation, which gives $225 more per student to nonwhite districts.
And there are other options too while we wait for enlightenment.
One of those is dependent on Murphy and his Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet deciding to reverse their moratorium on public charter school approvals. After all, charters are technically their own districts and can draw from wider catchment areas, like Princeton and Trenton. There’s also the Interdistrict Public School Choice program, currently on life support through lack of funding, which allows districts to open up empty seats to students in other districts. We can open up more magnet schools that serve entire counties and require the ones that exist to diversify and mirror the demographics that surround them, instead of serving almost exclusively wealthy white and Asian students.
But, really, in the end we’ll get nowhere until we cop to the fact that Abbott didn’t work and “fairly funding” SFRA — the desideratum of Murphy, Education Law Center (which litigated Abbott), NJEA, and SOS-NJ — is a pipedream. SFRA isn’t fair. It just props up the inherently unfair system identified in the EdBuild Report:
Our economically and racially divided school districts have grown up out of the root of local funding. But for decades we’ve been solving for the inequities at the end of its branches. The co-mingling of the way districts are governed with the way that they are funded has led to an endlessly unfair system that is stacked against our most vulnerable children. We now have a system where wealth is preserved for the lucky—disproportionately fractured and locked away in racially concentrated white school districts. This is unlikely to change unless we finally commit to challenging the funding aspect of local control.
What about it, Jersey? Can we do it? 432,377 students await our answer.
A few other educational tidbits from Murphy’s budget address:
- He wants to increase school construction funding by $32.4 million to support $500 million in school construction projects across the state as well as increases for existing debt service. This money is managed by Lizette Delgado-Polanco, the new CEO of the School Development Authority, who as reported here, fired a bunch of competent people and replaced them with her friends and family. Her husband, former minor league baseball coach Enohel Polanco-Gonzalez, just was hired by the State Department of Education as a community liaison at a salary of $95,000 per year.
- According to Advance Media, New Jersey “must devote $14.2 billion, more than one-third of fiscal 2020 spending, to pension and health benefits, debt service and Medicaid. That leaves little money for other priorities.” That means $1 out of every $10 the state spends next will be go toward pensions.
- Murphy is continuing the redistribution of school aid that funding reform requires, and he’s proposing to increase formula aid by $206.2 million to nearly $8.7 billion.
- According to Bloomberg,
Income-tax collections, the state’s biggest revenue source, were down 6 percent this fiscal year through January, and S&P Global Ratings says even an April windfall may not close the gap. At risk is Murphy’s promised $3.2 billion payment, a record, to a pension system that’s among the worst-funded among U.S. states. He also has yet to resolve funding issues for New Jersey Transit.
“I don’t have any sign that Governor Murphy has taken away the kind of lessons that he needed to learn about the legislature and what their priorities are in putting together a budget,” Murray said. “He still has high aspirations for things that he wants to accomplish. All of them cost money. He hasn’t given any indication that he wants to cut anything.”