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N.J. public education funding myths repeated by Christie

sciarra100511_opt_optBY DAVID G. SCIARRA
COMMENTARY

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.



 
Comments (3)
3 Tuesday, 18 October 2011 16:20
Peter Talbot
I. Witherspoon is right. The endless second-guessing of the Abbott districts is just verbal diarrhea to cover unwitting, and sometimes intentional racism. The Abbotts wouldn't exist if New Jersey better integrated its communities and school systems, but we are so scared of staying active in the politics of our neighbors that this is unthinkable. So we rail about high taxes while electing machine politicians from both parties with a vested interest in the status quo: more spending, more municipal port, more segregation, fewer opportunities in the inner cities. The problem in the inner cities is complex only because we believe it's complex. The real problem is simple: young black males can't get and keep a job and have to try ten times harder than young black whites and three times harder than young black hispanics just to get educated and stay off the slabs in the morgue. The reason they can't get jobs is that no one will hire them. The reason no one will hire them is because they don't have to and most folks are scared of them. White flight caused all of this, and whitewashed walls around the 600 or so municipalities in this tiny state keep causing it. Anyone that attacks the Abbotts or the NJEA as primary causes of inner city ed costs and poorer class results is in fact, doing evil whether they know it or not. They are both intellectually and morally bankrupt regardless of their relatively healthier finances.
2 Thursday, 13 October 2011 14:15
Reality Check
Myth: Christie is trying to reform fair funding
Fact: Christie is the advocate for the taxpayer.
It's the same old story, all the "experts" complain about needing more and more money, because taxpayers have bottomless pockets to throw at education. But mention merit pay or test scors, and the real problem is not schools or teachers, it's the "environment" the kids grow up in.
Give me a break. Over 90% of the teachers in NJ are worthy and solid professionals. The other 10% and the waste in the adminstrative staff needs to be addressed. Maybe we need to provide alternatives to mainstream education, such as vocational schools or trade schools. Many inner-city kids should not be subject to the conditions that exist, and exist only because we force feed a one-size-fits-all education program on everyone.
But no one wants to talk about that. Every parent thinks their kid is an honor student, does no wrong, and is entitled to everything. And the NJEA wouldn't ever let kids leave the system and jeopardize staffing levels.
Let's just keep throwing more and more money at the problem...that seems to have to this point, right?
1 Thursday, 06 October 2011 13:28
Ignatius Witherspoon
Battles of words aside, to the extent that Abbott districts are able to show how increased funding is resulting in more students from those districts taking more rigorous courses and more students demonstrating that they are college ready, the taxpayers would be less reluctant to support high levels of support. I am not sure that I have seen that, and we all need to realize that many students in those districts start out with some tough strikes against them, including many with parents who are indifferent about educational progress of their kids.

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