Chris Christie’s education reform plan: Part II

This is part of a series from education blogger Laura Waters of NJ Left Behind.

School funding is never just about dollars and cents. Instead, it subsumes a whole slew of issues, including educational needs, politics, economic constraints, and public perception. New Jersey’s 2013 Education Adequacy Report, issued last week by Ed. Comm. Cerf, incorporates one other factor: the Christie Administration’s education reform agenda.

New Jersey funds most schools through local property taxes and, historically, this has led to vast educational inequities between poor and rich districts. After all, wealthy communities have a much higher tax base to devote to public education.

A series of Supreme Court decisions, known as Abbott v. Burke, ordered that N.J.’s poorest school districts be given enough state money – from N.J.’s first income tax — to even out those inequities. In 2008, the Corzine Administration passed the new School Funding Reform Act (SFRA), which tried to render the Abbott designations obsolete through a new formula in which “the money follows the child,” regardless of zip code.

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Part of our new system of education funding (which is on a sort of probationary status after challenges from Education Law Center) is that the Commissioner must present an annual Educational Adequacy Report that specifies the amount of money needed to “adequately” educate a child for the year.

Here’s the bottom line, courtesy of NJ Spotlight: “the base proposal for funding is $11,009 per child in fiscal 2014, up almost $500 from this year.” However, adds Spotlight, “certain at-risk students will see decreases in funding by as much as $1,000 per year.”

The $11,009 is a baseline. If a student requires extra resources, then the baseline number is weighted to allow for those extra costs. SFRA allows additional weights for five categories of students: grade level, county vocational school district, at-risk students (free or reduced lunch), bilingual students, and kids who are both at-risk and bilingual, or “combination students.” (Special education is a different category and a column for another day.) The decrease pointed out by Spotlight is due to Comm. Cerf’s recommendation that the State adjust some of those weights. For example, SFRA originally posited a weight of .31 for kids who attend vocational schools. This report recommends decreasing that weight to .26 because it’s more consistent with actual costs. English language learners move from a .47 weight to a .46 weight.

The meat of the Report, however, is really the political agenda and serves also as a scorecard of the past year’s education reform accomplishments and disappointments. Always, there’s the chanting of the education reformer’s anthem: the urgency of the plight of kids stuck in failing schools; the need for great teachers and the right to reward them; the value of school choice, including charter schools and magnets, for children without choices.

Here’s Commissioner Cerf:

“The conclusion is inescapable: forty years and tens of billions of dollars later, New Jersey’s economically disadvantaged students continue to struggle mightily. There are undoubtedly many reasons for this policy failure, but chief among them is the historically dubious view that all we need to do is design an education funding formula that would “dollarize” a “thorough and efficient system of free public school” and educational achievement…Simply put, there is no magic funding formula that will improve New Jersey’s educational outcomes.

Of course, schools must have the resources to succeed. To the great detriment of our students, however, we have twisted these unarguable truths into the wrongheaded notion that dollars alone equal success. How well education funds are spent matters every bit as much, and probably more so, than how much is spent.

New Jersey has spent billions of dollars in the former-Abbott districts only to see those districts continue to fail large portions of their students. Until we as a state are willing to look beyond the narrow confines of the existing funding formula – tinkering here, updating there – we risk living Albert Einstein’s now infamous definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”

So, then, what does Comm. Cerf want to do differently? Tenure reform and the Urban Hope Act (which allows charter operators to open up to four schools in three of our poorest cities with the school board’s approval) have been happily checked off the list of to-do items. This year’s Report focuses on three items on the agenda that remain unfulfilled. First on the list is the elimination of seniority-based lay-offs, which forces school districts to fire great teachers because they have accumulated fewer years of service.

Comm. Cerf’s second desideratum is the creation of an “Innovation Fund” that would reward high-performing districts willing to implement “innovative programs,” thus turning New Jersey “into a laboratory of education reform, with school districts competing for dollars and New Jersey’s students realizing the benefits of that competition.” And, last on the list, he’d like to eliminate Adjustment Aid, which is a supplement to compensate Abbott districts for the lower revenue rendered by SFRA funding, “Still today,” says Cerf, “a number of districts, including Camden and Atlantic City, receive windfalls in excess of adequacy and without any connection to educational needs.”

Both Cerf and Christie anticipate a fight over the math: Education Law Center has already signaled its displeasure at the reduction in weights and will urge the Legislature to reject the Adequacy Report. The more interesting question is how stakeholders will respond to the education reform agenda.


Laura Waters is president of the Lawrence Township School Board in Mercer County. She also writes about New Jersey’s public education on her blog NJ Left Behind. Follow her on Twitter @NJLeftbehind.

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