Education Law Center's Prism

Check out the new report, “Is School Funding Fair? A National Report Card.” Authors are Bruce Baker from Rutgers, David Sciarra, Executive Director of Education Law Center, and Danielle Farrie, Research Director at ELC. ( Executive summary here, though it’s worth reading in its entirety.)

The report grades each state on four measures of “fairness”: funding level (comparison of per pupil spending); funding distribution (whether a state delegates more money to poorer kids); effort (per pupil spending relative to state wealth); and coverage (proportion of kids attending either public or private schools along with the income ratio of their families). The data is from 2006-2007.

How does NJ do in funding fairness? Great. We’re number 2 in mean actual state and local revenue per pupil: $17,115. That figure is adjusted for regional wage variation and population density, and we're bested only by Wyoming, which spends less ($16,238) but increased spending 4%. Tennessee is the laggard at $6,966. The national average is 10,132 per pupil.

In funding distribution relative to student poverty, NJ gets an “A.” For districts with 0% poverty we allocate $13,464 per pupil; for districts with 30% poverty we allocate 140% of that, or $18,841. This makes our funding formula progressive, rather than regressive like in Illinois, Nevada, and New Hampshire.

The third funding fairness measure is the percentage of the state’s GDP used to fund public schools. Again, we get an “A.” (Interesting note: Hawaii, recently in education news for going to a 4-day school week, gets an “A” while Massachusetts, often recognized for its academic rigor and student achievement, gets a “C.”) The fourth funding measure involves the percentage of children who attend that state’s public schools relative to the number who opt for private and parochial schools and the incomes of families who send their kids elsewhere than public school districts. We rank 21st, with 85% of our kids in public schools and a 1.31 ratio in income between families that send their kids to public or private.

Two points: The ELC, of course, is awaiting a ruling from the state Supreme Court on its challenge to Gov. Christie’s school aid cuts, arguing that those cuts violated the School Funding Reform Act (SFRA). Originally Christie planned on cutting deep into Abbott district funding, but reversed course at the last minute apparently after realizing that disproportionate cuts to high-needs district would violate SFRA. Instead, all districts, regardless of need, saw their state aid cut by 5%. We’ve got no crystal ball here, but it seems likely that the Court would find the last-minute cuts unfortunate but fair.

Secondly, while the report includes a disclaimer about funding as the sole leveler of the playing field, it’s difficult to overcome the angle that, indeed, it is. From the report:
Of course, funding alone will not lead to better academic performance and outcomes for students. Funding also must be invested wisely, focusing on key areas such as quality teaching, strong curriculum, programs for struggling students, effective supervision, and sufficient supports for districts and schools from state education agencies and institutions of higher education. High poverty schools need sufficient funds, effectively and efficiently used, to achieve established outcome goals and prepare their students for high school graduation and for post-secondary education or the workforce.
An overarching focus on funding, say the writers, “will not lead to better academic performance and outcomes” but, they continue, there’s not substitute for an overarching focus on funding. It’s all about input. Output – student growth and achievement – gets nary a mention or a graph or a grade.

The report's tacit equation is that more money equals improved student growth. While this paradigm suits ELC's four-decade-long battle for funding equity for poor kids, it might get more bang for its buck by modifying that equation to incorporate what we've learned in the last forty years about non-financial impediments to educational success.

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