School Funding FIsticuffs

There’s a bit of grenade-throwing going on between Murray Sabrin and Paul Tractenberg on the pages of New Jersey Newsroom. Sabrin, a regular columnist, is a dyed-in-the-wool Libertarian, and sometimes his commentary veers into the wacky lane.

Example: in a recent column Sabrin called for the elimination of the clause in NJ’s State Constitution that mandates a “thorough and efficient system of free public school.” He also suggested that we “phase out state aid and the income tax over three to five years.” How do we fund public education? Simple. Parents are responsible for their own kids. Then he goes over the rails:
If opponents of this proposal cry foul, let them answer the following questions: Should people of color be responsible for educating their children? Are people of color capable of self government? Why should suburban taxpayers pay for their local schools and urban schools? Why do we think that big, expensive schools in urban districts, contrary evidence notwithstanding, are the magic bullet to educate children?
I’m not sure if that’s implicit or explicit racism; take your pick. So Tractenberg, founder of the Education Law Center, has earned his umbrage and responds appropriately, citing NJ’s history of applying the “equality principle to school funding.” He ponders,
To what end does Sabrin advance this proposal, which he himself characterizes as “radical?” Frankly, it’s hard to tell. Clearly, it’s about letting suburban taxpayers off the hook. They no longer would have to contribute to the support of “big expensive schools in urban districts.” At some level it’s ideological -- getting us off “the collectivist road.”
Too bad that Trachtenberg succumbs to the Ravitchy paranoia of “hedge fund managers and venture capital billionaires” who support “educational entrepreneurship.” It’s that same trite response of old-timey unionists who dismiss education reform because it has some ties to rich people who want to spend money on poor kids. But otherwise his take-down of Sabrin is spot-on, especially later on in the piece when he looks more closely at NJ’s educational inefficiencies:
That we have persisted in maintaining more than 600 independent school districts, many of them too small to be educationally or fiscally efficient and some of them too small to operate even a single school. Over the past 60 years, the number of school districts in the United States has shrunk from more than 75,000 to about 15,000; in New Jersey we actually have significantly more school districts now than we did then.
Of course, Tractenberg's larger point is the necessity of fully funding the School Funding Reform Act in light of Gov. Christie's school aid cuts, currently before the State Supreme Court. NJ's unsustainably school infrastructure is just a side note.

But maybe it shouldn't be. Maybe one of the keys to an equitable education system is not dissolving income tax or State oversight, but reconfiguring our fragmented and segregated school districts. Both Sabrin and Tractenberg buy into the artificial division of "people of color" and "suburban schools" and "big expensive schools in urban districts." What if school districts encompassed all categories? Wouldn't that be more effective in providing a thorough and efficient education system than either radical revisions to state education equality mandates or fiscally impossible school aid formulas?

Labels: ,