Rethinking School Funding

We’ll take it on faith that the reporter for this Trenton Times story didn’t write the headline – “School Districts Sitting on Millions.” The bucks under the buttocks of Trenton Public Schools are $7.5 million in federal Edujobs money awarded last Fall, and frugally put aside (on the advise of Fiscal Monitor Mark Cowell and Interim Superintendent Ray Broach) for anticipated cuts in state aid for 2011-2012. Word is that Gov. Christie will sock it to the Abbotts more than the suburban districts that surround Trenton.

Hint: he told a crowd in Chesilhurst this week (maybe borrowing a phrase from NJ Left Behind) that the Abbott decisions, which attempt to balance educational inequity to poor districts through lots of extra cash, are a “failed experiment.” In fact, Christie doesn't distinguish between the much-assailed Abbott funding (money goes to poor districts) from former Gov. Corzine’s new and improved School Funding Reform Act (SFRA), where money goes to poor kids regardless of district of residence. Either way, says, Christie,
The state's funding formula has been rigged so nearly 60 percent of all the state aid goes to 31 school districts. It's crazy.
Here’s what’s still crazy after all these years: school funding in NJ is predicated on the presumption that cash alone will meet the constitutional test of a thorough and efficient school system for all, and that equalization of funding will ameliorate all (or most) educational ills. In fact, we know that while cash is important, there are other elements that are necessary to help bridge the achievement gap, like longer school days, longer school years, consistently effective teachers and administrators, small learning communities, and options for attendance in higher-performing districts. None of these are panaceas. But they contribute in ways more substantive (and sustainable) than cash alone, particularly for impoverished children.

Chock it up to legislative inertia, political lobbying on the part of local districts, school boards, and unions, or DOE dysfunction. Whatever the excuse, NJ continues to define educational inequity in terms of money. We might serve children (and taxpayers) more thoroughly and efficiently by creating a comprehensive school funding formula that incorporates more meaningful elements of school reform than just hard cash.

Let’s take an example (if a bit of an inflammatory one): Asbury Park School District. About 2,000 kids attend the traditional public schools in this impoverished Monmouth County town. Because of additional school funding intended to ameliorate academic achievement woes, Comparative Cost Per Pupil for the 2008-2009 school year was $24,428. How are we doing for $25K per kid? At Asbury Park Middle School, 60.9% of 8th graders fail the state test in language arts and 79.6% of 8th grades fail the state test in math. According to No Child Left Behind, Asbury Park Middle is in its 9th year of a School In Need of Improvement in language arts, which means it’s failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress every single year since NCLB’s implementation. The 6th-8th grade school is in its 7th year as a SINI in math.

Through our school funding formula we've sent generous amounts of cash every year, either through the Abbott formula (the money goes right to the district) or through SFRA (the money is directed to the district through the child’s level of poverty). It’s a distinction without a difference.

It’s as if we’re in a competition to demonstrate the longest learning curve in history. Ten years from now, barring inevitable (and welcome) changes in NCLB, Asbury Park Middle School will be in its 19th year as a School In Need of Improvement. Perhaps it’s time to try tying the cash to educational reforms that might pack more wallop. For example, we could make some portion of the money contingent on the district turning over the school to a reliable charter organization (Mastery, Green Dot, KIPP) or mandate that Asbury Park Middle School kids get first dibs on any seats available through the Interdistrict Public School Choice Program, which allows schools to offer open seats to kids in neighboring districts.

Or we could let parents vote on whether they'd like their kids to go to Asbury Park MS. Or Asbury Park High School, for that matter, where in 2009 34.9% of seniors were able to pass the High School Proficiency Assessment, a middle-school level test. But that's another can of worms.

[Note: there is a charter school in Asbury Park, Hope Charter School. Test scores are nothing to write home about, but better than the traditional public option: 33.3% of 8th graders fail the state language arts test and 53.3% of 8th graders fail the math test. Comparative cost per pupil is $14,531, though there’s very few kids with disabilities enrolled there. New applicants for the Interdistrict Public School Choice Program show a few volunteers from Monmouth County: Marlboro, Farmingdale, and Deal, in addition to veteran Allentown.]

We look at school aid for poor kids in a vacuum. Can we evolve our thinking about school reform and incorporate data-driven research on effective innovations? It's not just about money. It's about whether we have the will to legislate that knowledge.

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