Should N.J. Schools Offer Hondas or Cadillacs?

As if the deferral of school aid payments and the loss of preschool money wasn’t enough bad news for local districts, it’s looking like the State will also renege on $35 million worth of debt aid for school construction. Actually, the bad news will be next year’s budget, when the book-balancing gimmicks catch up with us. Reports the Philadelphia Inquirer today,
Nonpartisan analysts from the Office of Legislative Services have predicted $6 billion deficits in future budgets as the steps taken to balance the 2009-10 plan expire.
Assembly Republican Leader Alex DeCroce puts part of the blame for our fiscal mess on the lack of oversight of Abbott districts. In an editorial today in the Trenton Times, he catalogues the oft-quoted Abbott abuses that are starting to jingle like a Christmas carol: eight school board members at a ski resort, seven students take flying lessons, six limo rides, five golden rings. DeCroce then nails Commissioner Lucille Davy:

But it was disheartening to hear the response of Secretary Davy and Democratic legislators when the commissioner was asked about these questionable expenditures at a recent Assembly Budget Committee hearing. They seemed to indicate a big deal was being made out of nothing. Ms. Davy said there was no way the Department of Education will ever be able to oversee every school expenditure and that school superintendents are the ones who should be held accountable, not her. She didn't sound like a supporter of "the-buck-stops-here" style of government.

Our fiscal mess is far ranker and deeper than Abbott funding. But the financing of school districts is a significant factor. Corzine has tried to control costs through the School Funding Reform Act by creating a prototypical New Jersey public education and slapping a price tag on it – the “adequacy formula.” But that adequacy depended on the State ponying up the bucks for things like preschools, and that’s not happening this year.

The other problem with S.F.R.A. is that it creates a sort of generic pricing for public education – equity is based not on our wealthiest kids, but on our average ones -- which is in direct opposition to the logic used by the courts when they handed down the Abbott decisions. The Education Law Center issued a press release on Tuesday, "Funding Gap Widens Under S.F.R.A.," that reiterates that logic: poor urban students are deprived, and the only way to square the deprivation is by funding each of those kids at the rate of a rich suburban kids. The E.L.C. sounds the alarm:
Just as the experts predicted, the gap in per pupil funding between urban and suburban school districts in New Jersey has widened in only the first year under the State’s new school funding formula.
An analysis of K-12 per pupil revenue by Education Law Center (ELC) shows that the gap in overall funding between wealthy, suburban districts (District Factor Groups I & J) and poor, urban (“Abbott”) districts rose from $901 to $1066 in just one school year. That’s an 18.3% jump in funding disparity.

The Abbott decisions were noble and quixotic: our poor urban children will be treated like royalty! Or at least like kids who live in Short Hills! But we can’t afford to do that anymore, if we ever could, and a reasonable compromise is to educate our needy children – urban, rural, suburban –-at the cost of our middle-income kids. The S.F.R.A. attempts/ed to do that, and it’s not unlike the way we treat our children with disabilities. By federal law, special education children get a free public education, and the analogy their parents are handed every day is “you get a Honda, not a B.M.W.”.

The S.F.R.A. is supposed to give everyone a Honda, a generic education, the drugstore brand. It’s necessary and timely. But Corzine’s most recent cuts threaten to strip the car down so that effort becomes moot: those districts relying on the aid for, say, public preschool for poor kids, are reduced to handing out clunkers and we’re back where we started, saddled with a public school system that that lacks accountability, achievement, efficiency, and equity.

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