This was written by David G. Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center in Newark, N.J., and lead counsel to the plaintiff schoolchildren in New Jersey’s landmark Abbott v. Burke litigation. The litigation has over three decades produced court rulings that led to changes in public education funding in about 30 school districts located in poor communities. These include adequate K-12 foundational funding and universal preschool for all 3- and 4-year olds.
By David G. Sciarra
New Jersey’s public schools are often cited for academic achievement, outperforming most other states on the National Assessment of Educational Progress and ranking among top nations on international benchmarks.
The Garden State has another distinction: it is one of the few states with an equitable school finance formula that, when fully funded, provides all schools sufficient resources to deliver rigorous academic standards while targeting more funding to high poverty districts and schools. This “real reform” is the product of years of advocacy by parents and concerned citizens, as well as continued prodding by a State Supreme Court determined to uphold the education rights of the state’s 1.3 million students.
But fair school funding is not on Gov. Chris Christie’s so-called education “reform” agenda. Instead, cutting state spending is. Since taking office, Christie has been working hard to bring fair school funding in New Jersey to an end.
Every chance he gets, the governor heaps criticism on the state’s model school funding formula — the School Funding Reform Act of 2008 (SFRA). He’s made no secret of his desire to cut public education funding by changing or getting rid of the formula.
Christie leveled his latest attack on fair funding in an interview with the New Jersey School Boards Association on September 8. Once again, he displayed a striking ignorance of the process used to develop the SFRA and how the formula actually works. He also neglected to mention that both Republican and Democratic state legislators supported passage of the SFRA in 2008.
Here are some of the myths repeated by Christie during his September interview and the real facts about the way New Jersey provides equity in public education funding:
MYTH: Christie asserts that the SFRA formula “has shown itself to be a failure.”
FACT: In 2008 and 2009, the New Jersey Legislature funded the formula, bringing significant and long overdue aid increases to most school districts, particularly middle-income and rural districts. But in Christie’s first state budget in 2010, he cut over $1.6 billion from the SFRA, wiping out all the gains made in the first two years. The “failure” is not with the formula, but with Christie’s refusal to fully fund it for all districts statewide.
MYTH: Christie claims the SFRA formula “puts billions and billions of dollars” into poor urban, so-called “Abbott,” districts.
FACT: The formula does not put “billions” into Abbott districts. In fact, the SFRA ended court-ordered Abbott funding altogether. The SFRA was carefully designed after six years of study by the NJ Department of Education, with extensive input from experts, stakeholders and parents. The formula was created in direct response to Court decisions that required school funding to be based on the actual cost of providing educational programs and not on yearly budget politics. It is built upon a per pupil cost for providing a quality education to each student as defined by the state’s curriculum standards. It’s also designed to make sure the needs of all students are funded, regardless of zip code or school district.
Christie also ignores the fact that the prime beneficiaries of full funding of the SFRA formula are not urban students, but rather those in moderate- and middle-income districts spending below “adequacy,” the minimum level necessary to provide a quality education as established in the formula.
MYTH: Christie says the SFRA formula needs to be “totally” evaluated and changed.
FACT: Christie can’t point to a single problem with the formula, let alone offer reasons why it doesn’t serve the needs of New Jersey students. The Governor ignores the fact that the SFRA is based on the cost of educating students to meet rigorous academic standards, along with the cost of additional programs needed by at-risk (low-income) students, English language learners, and students with disabilities. This is why the SFRA garnered bipartisan support in the Legislature and was ruled constitutional for all students by the state high court in 2009.
MYTH: Christie says New Jersey has to find a “different way” to fund public education.
FACT: The governor offers no reason why the SFRA doesn’t provide adequate and equitable funding for all students. And Christie conveniently ignores the fact that when compared to most other states, New Jersey stands out as a model for reform in public school funding.
MYTH: Christie says poor urban districts need “other things” to be successful — like changing how teachers are evaluated and merit pay. Christie also wants vouchers so that public funding will be used to pay for children to attend private and parochial schools.
FACT: The governor has posed as an “education reformer” to mask his budget-cutting agenda. And yes, the polarized national debate on education reform has provided Christie and other budget-cutting governors with more than enough cover to carry out their plans to cut school spending and reduce the pensions, benefits, salaries, and qualifications of teachers and school staff. But nothing in the SFRA formula prevents Christie from asking the Legislature to enact changes to the current system of teacher evaluation, among other “reform” proposals. In fact, attracting, supporting and retaining high quality teachers and making other improvements in high poverty schools depend upon the adequate funding levels provided by the SFRA formula. As for Christie’s voucher proposal, research shows that vouchers drain scarce resources from public schools, cause increased segregation and inequality, and do nothing to improve public education.
Cutting through Christie’s political rhetoric, here’s the bottom line: for the first time in 30 years, New Jersey has a funding formula that is fair, equitable and the envy of public school teachers, leaders, advocates and parents across the nation. If funded from year-to-year, the formula provides a predictable, stable level of resources essential for student success. Driving this crucial point home, New Jersey’s poor rural districts have recently returned to court to enforce a state commitment to provide their students with full formula funding.
Christie’s continuing attack on fair school funding is also a cautionary tale. The resistance to funding equity is deep and longstanding in the 50 state capitols. Reaching an adequate level of education funding, especially for schools serving our poorest communities, takes great effort and public will, often over years if not decades.
Even worse, hard fought gains can be quickly wiped out without sustained vigilance; just look at Pennsylvania. In one state budget, Gov. Tom Corbett rolled back over $1 billion in equity funding achieved during former governor Ed Rendell’s eight years in office, causing severe cuts in programs, services and staff, particularly in high need schools.
The good news is that public school advocates in New Jersey are ready to make sure Christie fails in his attempt to cut school funding in next year’s state budget. And we’ll be working hard for a budget that finally delivers full SFRA funding to all students, wherever they attend school. NJ students are entitled to, and deserve, no less. And the same is true for students in every other state.
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