Let's Do The Time Warp Again

Two more Jersey towns are feeling ripped off by their school costs, reports The Record. Woodcliff Lake and Montvale in Bergen County want to withdraw from a sending-receiving relationship with Pascack Valley Regional High School District because they say they can do it cheaper on their own.

Pascack Valley takes students from Hillsdale, Montvale, River Vale, and Woodcliff Lake. It’s a high-achieving high school (DOE data here) – top test scores, SAT’s, AP offerings. Everyone graduates. Everyone (well, 97% of the kids) goes to college. There aren’t enough African-American or Hispanic kids to even count as a subgroup. There’s more computers than students. What’d you expect? It’s an I DFG – the second wealthiest designation in Jersey – and the total cost per pupil is $19,498 – about $4K above average.

It’s starting to feel like a trend. Just last week, Chesilhurst School District in Camden County appealed a DOE decision that forces them to dissolve and send their 195 elementary-aged kids to Winslow Public Schools because they don’t want to pay $18K per year. Said the mayor of Chesilhurst, "What do we get? It's costing us $18,000 to send each student there. We could send our kids to private school for that."

Montvale and Woodcliff residents (or at least their representatives on their municipal councils) resent paying for schools based on ratables because they end up paying more than citizens who live in towns with lower ratables. In other words, we ask wealthy people to ante up more into the school funding pot than poorer people because we base school taxes on property values. It works the same way with garbage pick-up and park preservation, but you don’t see people protesting their property-based taxes for those services. That’s because school costs feel like a raw deal. We know we pay too much.

Corzine has tried earnestly to address our out-of-control education costs through the School Funding Reform Act, new legislation designed to set state-wide spending caps, and DOE efficiency regulations. But there’s too much resistance – from the Legislature, from NJEA, from local school boards who abhor interference.

It’s like trying to clean up a landfill with a bottle of Lysol.

There’s a sense in which New Jersey is stuck in an educational time warp. We define ourselves – indeed, pride ourselves – on the historical strength of our local governance, which by definition produces unequal school districts. But everything about educational progress, policy, politics, and economics is rooted in equity issues – ARRA stimulus funding, Race To The Top requirements, cutting-edge research on pedagogy.

Either we resign ourselves to an expensive and inequitable school system (not really an option unless we want to forfeit federal aid) or we get brave and opt for meaningful reform – consolidation, integration, and equity. The residents of Montvale, Woodcliff, and Chesilhurst are understandably irate at the high price of educating their kids, but the answer is not further fragmentation.

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