NJ's Poor Rural Districts Kvetch, "What Are We? Chopped Liver?"

The big educational story in New Jersey today is the suit filed in State Appeals Court on behalf of the so-called “Bacon” districts, the rural equivalent of poor urban districts, or “Abbotts.” Most everyone’s heard of NJ’s Abbott districts: Newark, Trenton, Camden, Paterson, 31 in all, battered emblems of our noble attempts to rectify educational inequities through cold hard cash.

But not too many have heard of our 16 Bacon districts: Buena Regional, Clayton, Commercial, Egg Harbor City, Fairfield, Hammonton Township, Lakehurst, Lakewood, Lawrence, Little Egg Harbor, Maurice River, Ocean Township, Quinton, Upper Deerfield, Wallington, and Woodbine. On the State socio-economic rating scale, DFG, they’re all A’s or B’s. (A is the poorest and J is the richest.)

The Bacon case was first litigated back in 1997 and charged that NJ’s school funding deprives poor rural children of a thorough and efficient education. (The history is covered nicely in this most recent filing.) There's been a series of rulings and reversals and orders of different sorts of remedies, though never any more money. After all, funding issues were supposed to be resolved the School Funding Reform Act. Which wasn’t fully funded after the economy tanked. Now lawyers for the plaintiffs are asking that the State ratchet up Bacon districts’ school aid by $30 million. Really just a drop in the bucket when you think about it. Newark Public Schools whips through that in about two weeks.

Here’s coverage from the Wall St. Journal and NJ Spotlight.

Just as lots of money hasn’t erased the achievement gaps in urban Abbott districts, another $30 mil isn’t likely to ameliorate the woes in, say, Anna Klein Elementary School in Guttenberg (Hudson County), an 1,000-kid K-8 one-school district where just about everyone is classified as economically-disadvantaged. Or Fairfield Township School, another one-school district with 600 kids in Cumberland County with lousy test scores and low comparative cost per pupil: only $10,786 each per year, well below adequacy levels.(DOE data base here.)

So, what to do? Actually, court-ordered needs assessments were done on all Bacon districts and released (after various delays) in 2009. According to those assessments (from the brief):

A regionalization study…would be key to the funding of the Bacon districts…Each district gave its full cooperation to the Executive County Superintendents who conducted these studies. Virtually every Bacon districts and its voters would be thrilled to consolidate with wealthier and more property rich districts that are close by. Clayton officials, for example, have tried numerous times to combine with Glassboro to its north or Delsea Regional (Franklin and Elk Townships) to its south, north, and east. These entreaties have been continuously rebuffed. As another example, Woodbine’s K-8 school is less than five (5) miles from Dennis Township’s K-8 school. Woodbine’s officials and voters would love to combine with Dennis Township. There is zero chance that Dennis Township voters would agree to combine with Woodbine, unless such regionalization becomes mandatory.

To use the example in the brief, Woodbine has an “A” DFG, the poorest possible ranking, on a par with Newark or Camden. According to the most recent DOE data, 11 out of 13 kids in the 8th grade are labeled as economically disadvantaged. (There’s only 220 kids in the whole one-building K-8 district.) Five miles away is Dennis School District with a DFG of DE: nothing to write home about, but not poor either. In Dennis's elementary/middle school, 13 out of 62 kids in the 8th grade are economically disadvantaged. If you live in Woodbine, the amount of cash allotted to your kid each year is $13,254 (comparative cost per pupil). If your live in Dennis, then the amount of money allotted to your child each year is $14,746.

Then again, if you live in Franklin Lakes (a J district) it’s $16,380.

Nothing raises the ire of a devoted New Jerseyan more than the threat of mandated consolidation, town or school district. It's antithetical to our code of honor, our omerta, our shtick, our sense of entitlement and identity. We love our home rule.

The one-school district usually brings warm thoughts of tiny enclaves of privilege. The Bacon districts are the other side of that image: tiny slums pitting a middle-class landscape. $30 million would, no doubt, be welcomed. But it's no substitute for access.

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