School Funding Myopia

Yesterday the NJ State Supreme Court announced that the State cannot use evidence of the current fiscal crisis to justify cuts in education aid to Abbott districts during the February 14th fact-finding hearing before Judge Peter Doyne. Education Law Center, primary advocates of poor urban districts, has sued the State on the grounds that last year’s budget cuts violated the new School Funding Reform Act.When the Court declared the SFRA constitutional in 2008, it ruled that the State must maintain current funding for three years until the Court can determine if SFRA adheres to the constitutional mandate that all students, regardless of place of residence, have access to a “thorough and efficient education system.” Of course, the State didn’t comply last year due to lack of cash. Hence, the lawsuit.

Here’s coverage from The Record and NJ Spotlight. The Court also denied the State’s request to delay arguments. (As it is, Judge Doyne will give his recommendation at the end of March, too late for school districts to make adjustments to proposed budgets before residents give a thumbs up or down in April.)

This whole dispute is predictable enough (did the State really think that ELC wouldn’t notice its lack of compliance with SFRA?) but so-o-o-o last century. It’s been a while since even the most ardent stalwarts of obsolete school funding dogma have claimed that cost per pupil achieves educational equity. Does money matter? Sure. Does it fix the inequity? Big N-O.

Example (and a must-read): yesterday’s PolitickerNJ reported on a meeting of parents, educators, and community organizers in Jersey City regarding the Opportunity Scholarship Act (more commonly referred to as the “voucher bill”). Newark Mayor Cory Booker was there and a parent asked him to expound on the difference between Newark’s successful schools and failing schools. Replied Booker,
In the failing schools, he said, “Time is an obsession and achievement is a variable.” In the successful schools, the opposite is true: “Time is the variable and achievement is the constant.” What that means is longer school days, weeks, and years, Booker said.

“Newark is getting out of the business of being time-obsessed,” he said, and in three years they hope to lengthen the aforementioned school periods.
In other words, an efficient and thorough education system for educationally-disadvantaged kids is not achieved through money alone. It takes other elements: longer school days and years, consistently great teachers, integrated data systems that can track student growth and offer guidance in differentiating instruction, school choice, shutting down chronically failing schools. These elements cost money. They also require more commitment and leadership than writing a check, like cooperation from teacher unions, tenure reform, teacher, administrative accountability, and a functional DOE.

The current argument in court on the part of both the State and ELC is reductive and myopic. If we really want to offer Jersey City’s kids, among others, a thorough and efficient education, then the Court must widen its lens to include other factors that impede that constitutional mandate. Show me the money? Sure. But also show how we integrate proven methods of increasing educational achievement.

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