It's Not The Money

There’s two big education stories circling today: the NJ Supreme Court’s hearing on whether Gov. Christie’s school aid cuts violated the Constitution, and the most recent standardized test scores released by the State DOE.

On the former, the Education Law Center is arguing that, according to the Star-Ledger, “cuts in school funding made by Gov. Chris Christie and the Legislature last year violate the state’s constitutional obligations." It wants the state ordered to fully bankroll the court-approved school funding formula.” (Also see the Wall Street Journal.)

On the latter, DOE data shows that, according to The Record, “in third-grade language arts, roughly 60 percent of black students and 56 percent of Hispanic students failed to meet proficiency standards last spring, compared with 31 percent for whites and 21 percent for Asian students.” According to Arcelio Aponte of the State Board of Education, “This is really an alarm for us…We’re still stuck in the realm of having an enormous achievement gap between African-Americans and Hispanics, and Asians and whites. It’s very troubling." (DOE news release and data here.)

This two stories are, of course, one story. The Abbott cases aspire to correct achievement gaps among ethnic and economic groups through infusions of money. The DOE data shows that the additional money isn’t working.

NJ Spotlight alludes to the link: “at the same time, the passing rates for low-income and disadvantaged students at every grade level -- many of the very students that the Abbott case has sought to help -- remained troubling, as much as 30 points lower than their peers.”

In other words, decades of increased funding to special-needs districts (and, through Corzine’s School Funding Reform Act, increased funding to disadvantaged students) hasn’t ameliorated the achievement gap.

While equitable funding is important, it’s no panacea. A one-tooled strategy can’t repair a complex problem, and ELC's fixation on one fix is troubling. (Remember Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.) We need a sane, multi-pronged approach. We need, if you’ll excuse the expression a tool-kit that includes closing down schools that consistently fail students, expanding charter schools in our lowest-achieving neighborhoods, methods of gauging teacher effectiveness, tenure reform so that ineffective teachers leave the classroom, proven models that increase achievement, like expanded school years and days.

If only it were as simple as more money. ELC Executive Director David Sciarra was correct in his argument before the State Supreme Court yesterday when he spoke about the State Constitution’s mandate that all NJ children have access to a thorough and efficient school system. "This is a fundamental constitutional right," he said. "This court has the authority to indicate to the state what it’s [sic] responsibilities are." Yet we know – don’t we? – that the ability of NJ school schoolchildren to exercise that fundamental right is not facilitated merely by more money.

(The Star-Ledger piece quotes Rutgers Professor Bruce Baker, blogger at SchoolFinance101 and stalwart opponent of school reform.While he acknowledges that our achievement gap remains unameliorated, he claims that test scores are of “limited value for estimating school effectiveness, no less teacher effectiveness.” We’re eager to hear other ideas for measuring student achievement besides, like, data.)

In many ways, NJ’s most recent test results and the on-going Abbott Battles point to fundamental issues of school district segregation and school funding that have long stymied a state governed by home rule. In other ways, especially now that our funding is more equitable, this news make a cogent case for reforming a school system that fails our most needy students in ways that are far more complex than a lack of cash.

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