SFRA as Gold Doubloon

Excuse the self-indulgent literary reference, but we just can’t help ourselves. The much-heralded/hated School Funding Reform Act, Gov. Corzine’s formula intended to more fairly equalize spending among our poorest students, has now become Herman Melville’s mystical gold doubloon nailed to the mainmast in Moby Dick, “etched with strange figures and inscription” which every sailor begins “to interpret for himself in some monomaniac way whatever significance might lurk in them."

Let’s back up. The School Funding Reform Act, according to the State Legislature is intended to address “a moral obligation to ensure that New Jersey’s children, wherever they reside, are provided the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed. Any school funding formula should provide resources in a manner that optimizes the likelihood that children will receive an education that will make them productive members of society.” It’s not intended to be a justification for salary increases or more money for urban districts or more money for suburban districts (or a “dark valley between three mighty, heaven-abiding peaks” or “the life of man in one round chapter,” for that matter). Yet it seems that every participant in our political war dance around the school funding fire is intent on using the Supreme Court-sanctioned algorithm to advance private causes.

Example: yesterday Gov. Christie sent a letter to NJEA President Barbara Keshishian and NJSBA Exec. Dir. Marie Bilik urging employee pay freezes so that districts could get a little more state aid. Replied NJEA Spokesman Steve Baker to PolitickerNJ, “ Christie's proposal is a bad idea, in part because there a school funding formula already in place, which the governor's tinkering would violate.” Actually, the school funding formula that Baker refers to has nary a mention of teacher salaries.

To the Education Law Center, our SFRA reflects back compensatory aid for poor urban districts; the formula’s emphasis on the individual child instead of place of residence is a distraction. A recent press release from ELC exhorts, “[w]ill our elected representatives stand up and do what’s right and equitable for public school children? Will they fund the formula they wanted so badly and now own? Supporters of public education need to let state legislators know that they expect nothing less.” In spite of Gov. Christie’s determination to cut back unsustainable school costs, in spite of a last-minute deference to Abbotts by cutting total budgets instead of percentages of state aid (see here), ELC reps are hypnotized by the glare of the past.

Allies of ELC include a new group, “Our Children, Our Schools” which counts among its signatories NJ Acorn, NAACP, The Abbott Leadership Institute, Dollar$ and Sense (a Bergen County group), and the League of Women Voters. OC/OS has a similar vision as ELC; members have been attending school board meetings urging trustees to sign petitions and pass resolutions to force Governor Christie to “follow the school funding formula in his proposed state budget for next year… it's the law and was sanctioned by the NJ Supreme Court last spring.” This group, embraced by ELC and NJEA, seems to be under the impression that it can reverse Christie’s harsh cuts to school state aid through a sort of grassroots populism.

Here’s the irony: ELC and NJEA originally were rabid foes of SFRA because calculations based on place of residence rather than cost per pupil resulted in aid reductions to poor urban districts. Now that funding has dropped even further, SFRA seems like a pretty good deal and these groups are fighting to save it. Even gold doubloons are relative.

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