Commentary: Governor Christie’s ‘Fairness Formula’ is rooted in frustration not facts

Governor Chris Christie announces his proposal to rewrite New Jersey's school funding formula.  (Governor's Office/Tim Larsen)

Governor Chris Christie announces his proposal to rewrite New Jersey's school funding formula. (Governor's Office/Tim Larsen)

20160707-abel-portrait-photo-250New Jersey has one of the nation’s fairest school funding formulas. Two weeks ago, Governor Chris Christie announced a proposal that would quickly reverse this designation and deprive low-income, overwhelmingly black and Latino children of their constitutional rights.

The Governor’s Fairness Formula would overhaul the state’s current school funding system and give every public school district the exact same per pupil expenditure, regardless of that district’s ability to generate revenue, or the needs of that community’s children. It is a proposal that will have a disproportionately racial impact and makes little sense. 

Our current funding system is the product of a decades-long struggle for equal opportunity in education. By the mid-twentieth century a pattern of inequality along race and class lines had emerged. Suburbs, like my native Lawrence Township, underwent huge growth by taxing large, profitable “ratables” like the Quaker Bridge Mall and excluded minorities and working class people from suburban wealth and opportunity through restrictive covenants, exclusionary zoning, and discriminatory federally mortgage guidelines. Public services like schools were primarily funded by locally generated property taxes, and urban areas were unable to support schools as their economic foundations were ravaged by deindustrialization and globalization. By the late 1960s, statewide, black students tended to be clustered in decaying urban schools and surrounded by affluent, white suburban districts. 

Public officials and civil rights advocates first tried to fix this inequity by integrating schools. When these efforts were met with white opposition and stymied by the federal courts, advocates turned to funding equalization. If black students could not attend the same schools as Whites, it was reasoned, they should at least attend equally resourced schools.

Since the 1970s, advocates have argued New Jersey failed to provide the majority-minority students in poor districts with the “thorough and efficient” education to which they are legally entitled. The State Supreme Court recognized this in it’s Abbott ruling and has since been engaged in a decade long conversation with the other branches of government to determine how to fairly fund the state’s schools.

This decision made sense then and still does now. Poverty presents real challenges to education, and the research shows this. It isn’t insurmountable, but is a strong barrier. It is harder for children to focus and do well in school when their families struggle to secure basic necessities. Children growing up in poor families often lack access to good and consistent medical care. They can be exposed to harmful toxins in their environment that affect their development. They usually do not enter kindergarten school ready. Schools can meet the needs of individual students with extra support and attention. But in communities where poverty is concentrated, schools are overwhelmed. 

This is why high-poverty districts need more state aid. These districts cannot generate enough revenue locally, and their students face greater challenges than students in wealthier districts. Governor Christie is right; this funding law is not equal but it is equitable.

Moreover, greater spending for low-income students does impact student achievement for the better. The Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education found that low-income students with high per pupil expenditures were more likely to graduate high school and have higher earnings, and less likely to be poor adults.

Our equitable funding formula has paved the way for some incredible opportunities and outcomes for kids. A multi-year study of the Abbott pre-K program showed students made significant gains in literacy, math, and science through fifth grade. In Union City, a high poverty immigrant community, equitable funding streams have allowed educators to create an exemplary urban district, with rich curriculum, authentic community engagement and a caring culture. Union City has an 89.5 percent high school graduation rate, and a 75 percent college enrollment rate.

Contrary to the Governor’s claim, the funding formula has not been a colossal waste of taxpayer dollars. It is an overdue attempt to correct long-standing racial inequities and give every student, regardless of zip code, the education he or she deserves and is legally entitled to. Governor Christie came into office opposed to the spirit of this law; he initially failed to fully fund the formula. Now he is trying to just quash it altogether.

It makes sense that we are hearing this proposal in the Age of Trump. It has a sort of populist appeal that especially resonates with a suburban silent majority, in a climate where economic advancement feels out of reach for everyone. But the Governor’s idea is most deeply rooted in misplaced frustration, not facts or sound evidence. For the sake of our state and its students, we cannot mistake what this proposal really is. This racially motivated, reverse Robin Hood scheme will undo decades of civil rights progress and take away the most from our children who need the most.

A native of Lawrence Township, Abel McDaniels is a recent graduate of the University of Pennsylvania. His honors thesis, entitled “Schools and Suburbs” was a case study of the growth of a suburban school district and subsequent desegregation efforts in Mercer County, New Jersey.

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