Let's Spend More on Schools

Lots of chatter today about the Assembly Budget Committee hearing yesterday where a report was released from the Office of Legislative Services that compares state school aid in the Christie Administration budget to state school aid if we’d adhered to the formula in the School Funding Reform Act. (Representative samples: Star-Ledger and NJ Spotlight.)

According to the report, a fully funded SFRA “would decrease the share of total aid that would be allocated to the 31 former Abbott districts.” Ironic, considering that a suit against the Christie Administration's budget cuts was filed by Education Law Center, primary advocates for Abbotts. On the other hand, it explains the testimony against the Christie budget by superintendents of wealthy districts (e.g., Montgomery, with a DFG of J, the wealthiest socio-economic category) because “if SFRA were fully funded, districts classified in district factor group (DFG) I3 would have State aid more than double, while DFG J districts would experience a more than seven-fold increase.”

So Assemblyman Lou Greenwald, for instance, is apoplectic that two of the districts he represents, Voorhees and Cherry Hill (both DFG’s of “I”) got gypped out of cash, the former by $1.8 million or about 4%, and the latter by $10.3 million, more than a 100% decrease. (Under SFRA, Cherry Hill would have received over $19 million.)

The message seems to be that nobody got enough money, poor and rich districts alike. A win in State Supreme Court next Wednesday for ELC, which would compel the State to fully fund SFRA, will either cut services in other areas or raise taxes. (See earlier coverage here.)

Here’s the disconnect: with all the talk and testimony about fair school funding, no one, at least at the Assembly Budget Committee hearing, was talking about value or accountability. Shouldn’t that be on the table during any responsible and substantive fiscal discussion?

Special Master Peter Doyne’s report
to the Supreme Court was widely seen as a repudiation of Christie’s 2010-2011 school aid cuts. In it Judge Doyne concludes that the $1.7 billion decrease in statewide aid indeed violated the school funding formula. But over and over he reminds the plaintiffs (and the public) that his conclusions are seriously circumscribed by his mandate to exclude economic constraints or accountability considerations. The Supreme Court is unbound by those strictures (though the gestalt seems to be that the Court will rule for ELC)

From Judge Doyne’s report:
Despite the court’s efforts to confine the hearing within the remand’s parameters, the State’s presentation appeared more oriented to the Supreme Court. Accordingly, one of the central tenets of the State’s experts’ testimony, lack of correlation between spending and performance, can have little or no bearing on this hearing. The sole purpose of this hearing was to determine whether the reductions in State aid, resulting in less than full funding of SFRA, can pass constitutional muster. The limited nature of the remand was to ascertain whether there was sufficient latitude in the SFRA formula such that the reduced funding would not affect the delivery of a thorough and efficient education.
Is it possible to talk about a thorough and efficient system of public education without talking about the correlation between spending and performance? The Assembly votes "yes."