NJ's School Funding Enigma

The Associated Press has obtained an email memo written by Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean, Jr. to NJ’s Republican legislators. In the memo Sen. Kean urges his fellow lawmakers to unify around a three-part plan that would eliminate the State Supreme Court from its leading role in determining the State’s annual financial obligation to (depending upon whom you ask) districts or schoolchildren.

NJ’s struggle over the power of the Judiciary to dictate State education spending is most recently represented in last week’s Abbott ruling, which requires the State to send an additional $500 million to our 31 poor urban districts. The memo from Sen. Kean includes, according to the A.P., "supporting a constitutional amendment ending judicial interference in school funding decisions and giving the state wiggle room to reduce education funding in lean budget years. The resolution, sponsored by Sen. Steven Oroho of Sparta and co-sponsored by the other 15 members of the GOP caucus, was introduced in January but hasn't gained traction. It would require voter approval.”

Sen. Kean isn’t commenting. Regardless, it’s unclear how much support the NJ GOP could muster for removing the “thorough and efficient system of education” clause from the Constitution. Do we really want to leave funding for public education in the hands of legislators in the Soprano State? Not sure how that would fly with cynical voters.

In fact, there’s a whole lot to embitter the populace, at least those who dwell outside of our poor cities, over the State Supreme Court’s latest Abbott v. Burke ruling. Sure, the three judges who signed the 3-2 decision reiterate the reasons why they are forced to ignore the bulk of poor, needy kids who live outside of Abbott boundaries. But, surely, justice isn’t that blind.

I think it’s fair to say that it is a generally-recognized truth that it takes more money to educate needy children than it takes to educate kids who are unburdened by poverty, disability, lack of English fluency. To paraphrase Robert Copeland, Superintendent of Parsippany, who testified in the special hearing that preceded the Court ruling, some kids are born on third base and other kids can’t get out of the dugout.

The problem with the Abbott XXI is that it ignores that truth. Sure, we can retread the legalistic limitations of the Court’s remand, but either the Court controls school funding or it doesn’t. This latest and strangest circumscribed ruling tries to plow out some path to educational equity by allotting extra money to a small fraction of kids who need it, mostly in cities where decades of extra money has failed to achieve educational equity. But it just creates a whole new kind of inequity. If your folks are really poor and you live in an Abbott district then you get lots of resources. If your folks are really poor and you live in a non-Abbott district then you don’t get those resources. (Maybe this is a secret plan to repopulate Trenton and Camden.)

On a side note, when Education Law Center first started litigating Abbott back in the 1970’s, it fought for – and eventually won—an admission from the Court that poor kids should be funded at a level equal to rich kids so that they can access our thorough and efficient education system. But here’s the other side of the equation that we’ve left out: wealthier students need fewer resources.

That’s one of the politically unpalatable items that won’t appear on any legislator’s email memo. We may or may not spend too much on our really poor kids. But do we spend too much money on our rich and non-disabled kids, the ones born on third base?

The cost per pupil in plush Moorestown is $17,344. In Franklin Lakes (isn’t that near the homes of Housewives of NJ?) the budgeted cost per pupil is $17,086? It's $18,497 in South Orange-Maplewood. That’s home rule for you: the community is willing to pay close to what it would cost for private school tuition. So Abbott v. Burke brings us to a place where equity is measured by what the wealthiest of NJ's voters deem important, including a plethora of extra curricular activities like the Stock Brokers' Club offered in South Orange, or ski and snow-boarding lessons in Bedminster.

At Grace Dunn Middle School in Trenton the clubs are Newspaper, Yearbook, and Student Government. The link to "Special Events" is empty. The Trenton Public Schools website handily gives tips for avoiding bed bugs and headlice. Are we there yet? More pointedly, if equalizing money doesn't equalize educational opportunity -- and, three members of the State Supreme Court aside, most of us know that it doesn't -- what's a better metric?

I think there isn't one. The desideratum of the Court, Education Law Center, and anyone with a heart and a brain is indeed inscribed in our Constitution: access to a thorough and efficient education system. Abbott XXI doesn't get us there any more than Abbott I did. As long as we segregate our kids we segregate educational opportunity. All the money in the world won't change that.

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