More Shoddy Research From NJ Policy Perspective With a Boost From NJ Spotlight

NJ Spotlight continues to live down to its new reputation as a megaphone for the NJEA and its allies.  In a piece entitled “What Has Happened to NJ Spotlight?” Sunlight Policy Center recently highlighted the NJEA’s substantial financial support for and ties to NJ Spotlight, and the disparate treatment given op-eds critical of the NJEA as compared to op-eds from NJEA-supported allies like New Jersey Policy Perspective (NJPP).  Well, NJ Spotlight has done it again: In a video report, it gave full coverage to a new NJPP report and to its authors, Mark Weber and Bruce Baker, without presenting a different point of view.  Why wouldn’t NJ Spotlight seek out the view of an expert like NJ Education Aid?  It’s as if NJ Spotlight regards NJPP’s reports as the gospel truth that should be protected from heretics like Sunlight Policy Center and NJ Education Aid.

Unfortunately, like so many of Weber and Baker’s past reports for NJPP, it is nothing near the truth. Once again, Weber and Baker have cherry-picked data and made unsubstantiated claims just as they did in past reports. (See Sunlight’s critique of their past reports here).

False Claim #1: “Decline” in Education Spending Shown as Percentage of GSP

NJPP provides a graph entitled “New Jersey’s Education Spending Effort Has Declined Since the Great Recession of 2009”  The graph purports to show NJ education spending declining as a percentage of Gross State Product (GSP), where the percentages peaked at 4% to 4.25% from 2009 to 2011 and dropped to 3.75% in 2017.  But this graph is highly misleading. Obviously, if GSP goes down and spending stays the same or goes up, the spending percentage will go up.

This is precisely what occurred. Graph 1 shows that New Jersey GSP dipped from 2009 to 2011, dropping -4.6% in 2009 and another -1.4% in 2011.  This caused education spending as a percentage of GSP to correspondingly increase.  As GSP increased from 2012 onward, the spending percentage correspondingly decreased, precisely as depicted in the NJPP graph. As would be expected, Graph 1 below is the visual inverse of the NJPP graph in the report.

So what actually happened to education spending?  During the 2008 to 2017 “decline in spending” that NJPP describes, NJ education spending increased in eight of the ten years, reaching successive record levels for every year from 2012 to 2017.  In total, spending increased 14.7%.

The best measure of education spending is per-pupil spending. Graph 2 shows that education spending did dip -1.3% in 2009 and -5.2% in 2011, but by 2012 it was higher than in both 2008 and 2010, reaching an all-time high of $17,266 in 2012.  It rose every year after that until 2017, reaching a new all-time high in 2017 of $18,920 per pupil.

This raises the question of why NJPP chose to use relative data (percentages) to back an absolute claim (a spending decline) when hard, absolute data was readily available.  The answer would appear to be that the hard, absolute data did not support NJPP’s claim.  So NJPP cherry-picked the data instead.  Once again, Weber and Baker appear to set out their preferred conclusion and then cherry-pick the data to support it.  This is simply not sound research.

False Claim #2: “Decline” in Education Spending Shown as Percentage of Personal Income

In the same graph reflecting education spending as a percentage of GSP, NJPP shows state and local revenues as a percentage of state personal income.  This graph line tracks closely with the GSP graph line, but the data behind the personal income graph line is just as flawed.

NJPP does not explain why it chose state and local revenue for its data.  The title for the graph is “New Jersey’s Education Spending [emphasis added] Has Declined Since the Great Recession of 2009.” State and local revenue is an important measure but it does not measure spending.

NJPP’s choice of a measure of revenue is all the more perplexing given that the U.S. Census Bureau provides an exact measure of state and local spending per $1,000 of personal income.  This data is precisely on-point if one wants to show what percentage of state personal income is invested in education.

Graph 3 below shows that state and local education spending per $1,000 of personal income did indeed increase in 2010 and then decreased steadily from there.  As shown in Graph 4, this can be explained by the fact that personal income dropped in the immediate aftermath of the Great Recession and increased steadily thereafter.  In the main, Graph 4 presents the visual inverse of Graph 3.  In other words, as with GSP, the change in the percentage of personal income spent on education reflects changes in personal income not changes in education spending.  As shown in Graph 2 above, actual New Jersey education spending increased 14.7% from 2008 to 2017. 

Graph 3 also shows that New Jersey spent well in excess of the national average for education spending as a percentage of personal income.  From 2008-2017, New Jersey education spending ranged from 126% to 132% of the national average, with a mean of 130%.  The facts show that New Jersey’s citizens are very generous with how much of their personal income they spend on education – exactly the opposite of what NJPP purported to show.

False Claim #3: NJ Is Not One of the Highest-Taxed States

As with so many other ills that afflict New Jersey, NJPP’s solution is to raise taxes.  Again.  NJPP claims that New Jersey’s taxpayers can afford this by citing research to claim that “New Jersey is not a tax-and-spend outlier.”

This is simply not accurate.  As the New Jersey Business and Industry Association (NJBIA) reported, New Jersey has the highest income tax on the wealthy, the highest property taxes and the highest sales taxes in the North Atlantic region (DE, MD, PA, NY, CT and MA).  These are of course the states that New Jersey competes against for jobs, businesses and people.

Likewise, the Tax Foundation ranks New Jersey dead last in the nation for its State Business Tax Climate Index (which includes income, property and sales taxes) for the seventh straight year!  There are many other studies that rank New Jersey as one of the very highest-taxed states (see SPCNJ’s “Beware the Downward Spiral” for details).  The facts are, and as every New Jersey taxpayer knows, New Jersey is one of the very highest-taxed states in the nation, and is indeed an “high-tax outlier.”

Conclusion

All three of these false claims are repeats of the false claims in a previous report by Weber and Baker for NJPP.  Apparently, with uncritical “news” outlets like NJ Spotlight, Weber, Baker and NJPP feel they are immune from criticism and can simply repackage and repeat their falsehoods.  It’s a sad commentary on the current state of affairs in NJ that these efforts pass for journalism and research.

What do you think?