When it comes to funding N.J. schools, it’s time to try something new

You can’t fault New Jersey for inconsistency. For decades now we’ve strove to create an equitable school funding system that maintains great programs while compensating impoverished children for the educational insults of economic deprivation. Our efforts are endless.

This is commentary from education blogger Laura Waters of NJ Left Behind.

You can’t fault New Jersey for inconsistency. For decades now we’ve strove to create an equitable school funding system that maintains great programs while compensating impoverished children for the educational insults of economic deprivation. Our efforts are endless.

This month alone the Statehouse has hosted numerous engagements with the Governor’s Education Funding Task Force and, most recently, viewed a new report from the Office of Legislative Services mellifluously entitled, “How Proposed Changes to the School Funding Reform Act of 2008 Will Change the Allocation of State Aid.”

The OLS report challenges the Christie Administration’s assertion that the State is spending more on public education than ever before. Actually, said OLS, we’ll be spending $300 million less than required by our school funding law and most of those reductions will come from districts like Camden.

According to the OLS report, Camden will receive $253.7 million for the 2012-2013 school year. (The city only raises about $7.5 million in local tax levy.) That’s about $22 million less than it would receive if the school funding formula was fully funded (although it never has been), and Camden’s not alone in finding itself less flush.

The reason for the dip in state aid is that the NJ Department of Education intends to use a different rubric for assessing enrollment and a more nuanced way of assessing the number of children eligible for free and reduced lunch, the metric that determines whether a student is economically-disadvantaged. (Several Jersey districts —Elizabeth and Jersey City come to mind — have been embarrassed recently by reports that school board members had illegally procured free lunches for their own non-eligible children.)

The contention among some urban advocates is that this state aid reduction will do irreparable harm to Camden’s schools.

So let’s look at Camden, the poster child for failing school districts. This past winter the New Jersey Department of Education won a waiver from the punitive measures of No Child Left Behind. Part of our waiver includes a list of the State’s 70 worst schools, which we now call “Priority Schools.” Twenty-three of Camden’s 26 public schools are on that list.

What has all that funding done for kids in Camden, where we spend (on a comparative cost per pupil basis) about $19,500 per year?

At Dudley Elementary School, 86.4% of third graders failed the language arts standardized test in language arts. 71.2% failed the math portion. (Data is 2009-2010, the latest from the laggard NJ DOE.)

At East Camden Middle School, 84.4% of 6th graders failed the language arts standardized test and 76.6% failed the math portion.

At Camden High School, 80.7% of 11th graders failed the High School Proficiency Assessment in language arts, considered an 8th-grade level test. So many students failed the math portion of the HSPA that the percentages are marked with an asterisk. All told, 21% of high school graduates were able to eventually pass the HSPA (the state average is 90.6%). Average SAT scores were 330 in math and 340 in verbal. No students took Advanced Placement tests and no A.P. courses were offered. The graduation rate is listed as 42%, although that number will drop under stricter DOE guidelines for reporting data.

Money doesn’t ameliorate the educational miasma that is Camden, and it hasn’t since 1981 when the Abbott cases were first litigated. Money’s easy. Meaningful reform — expansion of school choice and access to successful schools, closure of persistently failing schools, tenure reform and merit pay — is politically hard. But we know money doesn’t work. Isn’t it time to try something new?

 

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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