New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie just slapped public schools in his state right where it hurts: funding.
As Christie spends time advising presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump — and apparently, turning up on Trump’s list of vice presidential candidates — he continues governing New Jersey (with approval ratings at an all-time low). And in that role, he just proposed a new public school funding system that he calls the “Fairness Formula.” But critics say that it is actually wildly unfair to students and taxpayers.
School funding is a central issue in public education (but one that corporate school reformers, unfortunately, have systemically ignored while favoring controversial standardized test-based accountability systems and school choice). The public education system in the United States relies heavily on property taxes, so wealthier districts obviously have more to spend. Though there is federal funding that is aimed at bridging the gap, it doesn’t. Nor does private philanthropy.
A recent report issued by the Education Law Center in New Jersey, using 2013 U.S. Census data (the most recent available), found that public school funding in most states is inequitable. Among the findings:
- Funding levels show wide disparities among states, ranging from a high of $17,331 per pupil in Alaska, to a low of $5,746 in Idaho.
- Many of the states with the lowest funding levels, such as California, Idaho, Nevada, North Carolina and Texas, invest a very low percentage of state economic capacity in funding public education.
- Fourteen states, including Pennsylvania, North Dakota and Illinois, are regressive, providing less funding to school districts with higher concentrations of low-income students.
- Certain regions of the country exhibit a double disadvantage — many states with low funding overall add no additional funds for concentrated student poverty. These include Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida in the Southeast, and Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico in the Southwest.
- Only a handful of states — Delaware, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, and Ohio — have generally high funding levels while also providing significantly more funding to districts where student poverty is highest.
- Low rankings on school funding fairness correlate to poor state performance on key indicators of essential education resources, including less access to early childhood education, non-competitive wages for teachers, and higher teacher-to-pupil ratios.
Years ago, New Jersey adopted the School Funding Reform Act, an innovative weighted-student formula that delivers basic per-pupil state and local funding to support core curriculum for all students and then provides extra money to support programs for students with various needs, including those with disabilities or who live in high-poverty areas or speak English as a second language.
The formula has been considered a national model for equity — though Christie’s administration has repeatedly failed to properly fund it. The state has been under court order to provide extra funding to 31 high-poverty districts for several decades, and Christie has said these districts have gotten much more than the more than 500 suburban districts.
Enough, he said, is enough. Now Christie is proposing a replacement for the current weighted-student formula that would move a lot of money away from the urban districts to suburban districts. In his proposal, Christie said that he wants to give every school district in the state the same amount of per-student aid per district — $6,599 — in what he said would help lower property taxes in many suburbs. Special education funding and charter schools may be exempt from the new formula, he said.
“It is time to change the failed school funding formula and replace it with one that will force the end of these two crises — the property tax scandal and the disgrace of failed urban education,” Christie said in a speech at a high school on June 21.
Critics immediately blasted the plan, saying it would widen inequality. An analysis of the “Fairness Formula” by Mark Weber and Ajay Srikanth says that it will hurt many districts serving large numbers of at-risk students. Weber and Srikanth are PhD students at Rutgers University’s Graduate School of Education. Weber, an education policy writer and analyst, is also known as the blogger “Jersey Jazzman.”
It will, the analysis said, reward the wealthiest districts — which are already paying the lowest school tax rates as measured by percentage of income — and will force the poorest districts to cut their budgets, increase local property taxes or both. The authors of the analysis also disputed Christie’s charge that schools enrolling high percentages of at-risk students “have failed,” noting that research shows at-risk students and students with limited English proficiency have made big gains on test scores over the past two decades. It says:
The “Fairness Formula,” then, would transform New Jersey’s school funding system from a national model of equity into one of the least equitable in the country, both in terms of education and taxation. This proposal is so radical and so contradicted by both the evidence and economic theory that even the harshest critics of school funding reform cannot support it.
Wendell Steinhauer, president of the New Jersey Education Association, said in a statement:
“Gov. Christie’s proposal would result in a huge step backward to the days when poor families in economically challenged communities were left to fend for themselves. His plan would subsidize those who have the most at the expense of those who have the least. That is the opposite of fair; it’s despicable.”
You can find the March 2016 report on school funding here or below.