Commentary: Throwing money at the ‘Bacon districts’ won’t solve their problems

The Education Law Center is in a rut. The ELC is an organization that describes itself as “the leading voice for New Jersey’s public school children,” particularly poor ones. 

On Tuesday a New Jersey judge denied ELC’s request for a summary motion in its long-running legal fight for additional funding to 16 rural South Jersey school districts it argues were short-changed. 

The legal arguments are similar to the ones put forth in the Abbott districts, which gave additional aid to many poor urban school districts. Think of it as Abbott redux, country-style. The 16 Bacon districts are: Buena Regional, Clayton, Commercial, Egg Harbor, Fairfield, Hammonton Township, Lakehurst, Lakewood, Lawrence (Cumberland County), Little Egg Harbor, Maurice River, Ocean Township, Quinton, Upper Deerfield, Wallington and Woodbine 

“Superior Court Assignment Judge Mary Jacobson dismissed the districts’ request for a summary motion because the data by ELC dates back to 2009 and, thus, says, the Judge,  is obsolete. What she didn’t say, but could have, is that the entire case itself, Bacon v. NJ Department of Education, is obsolete.

There are two factors that account for the growing irrelevance of ELC’s old-school argument that children who attend these short lists of districts are deprived of their constitutional right to a “thorough and effective education system.

First, the 31 Abbott districts and 16 Bacons don’t begin to encompass the sprawl of poverty in N.J.. Poor children may have clustered within certain districts, in 1985 when the Abbott cases were first litigated, or even in 1997 when the Bacons first came to court. But now low-income families live in many of our 600 school districts. The world, has moved on and ELC’s Abbot/Bacon model is a relic of a bygone New Jersey that exists only in outdated demographic files

Second, while many of these districts, both Abbott and Bacon, remain well-deserving of compensatory state aid, especially preschool support, others are failing to provide the state’s constitutional promise of a “thorough and efficient education system” for reasons that go beyond adequate ratables and the high educational needs of poverty.

Judge Jacobson dismissed those 2009 Assessment Reports but, in many cases, the issues cited in the report haven’t changed. If ELC decides to challenge the court ruling, and it probably will, then the state will create up-to-date assessments which will reiterate the non-monetary obstacles that interfere with thorough and efficient education in those districts.

Again, the rut: it’s not just about the money.

So it’s worth going back to those 2009 Assessment Reports and examining whether those non-fiscal obstacles have been addressed. Let’s look at two, Lakewood and Buena Regional.

Lakewood Public Schools (Ocean County) is one of N.J.’s weirder districts: it transports upwards of 25,000 children per day to Jewish day schools at enormous cost while the fewer than 5,000 in-district students, primarily poor and Hispanic, make do with the dregs, especially non-Jewish children with disabilities. State assessors noted in 2009  that the district’s fiscal problems are largely due to the school board’s “decision to direct a large proportion of resources” — over $5 million — “to providing courtesy busing to its public and non-public students,” which is a choice, not a mandate. Five years later, Lakewood’s transportation costs are almost $20 million.

For context, if the State funded the Bacon districts at the level requested by ELC, the total tab for all 16 would come to about $20 million.

Another example of the troubled Bacon litigation is Buena Regional Schools (Atlantic County). There, state assessors found five years ago that at least some portion of students’ lack of academic achievement, particularly at the middle and high school, was due not to lack of funding but to a contract with the local teachers union that “provides teachers with legal remedies limiting their work beyond classroom assignments. Thus, teachers cannot be asked to work on a curriculum during the school day, teach another class or work more than a single period doing additional duties around the building. Administrators report that the contract cannot be changed. It has been like this for a very long time and, according to administrators, will be so forever.”

The Report counsels that “the district must address the high personnel costs and loss of productivity that results from teachers spending so little time on instructional activities. It is imperative that the district address this issue so that it obtains maximum use of its teaching staff for up to at least five hours per day, as is common in many other districts.”

However, according to recent reports, Buena Regional Education Association’s most recent contract with the school board does not address these staff perks.

Now, that’s not to say that N.J. children don’t suffer from wide funding disparities among school districts. These inequities were supposed to be fixed in 2008 when the State Legislature passed a bill called the School Funding Reform Act, which funneled compensatory funding directly to poor children regardless of district of residence. But that formula, for all its good intentions, was created during prelapsarian Jersey, in the good old days before the Great Recession and our pension insolvency. No governor since Jon Corzine (and just for one year) has been able to fully fund the formula: reality bites. Thus, also by court order, the State was forced to return to the outdated designations of Abbott.

In the best of all possible worlds, N.J. legislators would face this new reality and craft an equitable funding formula for schools, one that both acknowledges the high needs of poor children and the reality of state budgets. Until then, we’ll stay mired in obsolete designations and litigation.

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Laura Waters is vice 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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