NJ State Aid Numbers and "The Education Funding Report"

The big education news today is the release of state aid figures to school districts, along with the release of a report from the NJ DOE, “The Education Funding Report.”

Here’s a handy-dandy gadget from The Record to see your district’s aid numbers, and here’s the State PDF file. Here’s local coverage from the Star-Ledger, The Record, NJ Spotlight, and PolitickerNJ.

The bottom line on the dispersal of state aid is that suburban districts did better than urbans, particularly Abbott districts. From PolitickerNJ: “Of the state's 31 Abbott Districts, 23 will lose funding in the next school year, two will see flat funding and six will see increased funding.”

David Sciarra, head of Education Law Center, told the Star-Ledger, “This is really bad news in terms of providing funding for poor students regardless of zip code, regardless of community."

On the other hand, Lynn Strickland, head of the Garden State Coalition of Schools, told NJ Spotlight, “Seeing not only the plus column next to our members, but also the echo of an improved aid picture for the suburbs in the future feels good. It has been a long time.”

Once you get beyond the actual number, Comm. Cerf’s report is far more interesting, both educationally and politically. In this paper he proposes changes to the School Funding Reform Act (SFRA), a creation of the Corzine Administration and the focus of a number of Supreme Court filings, and the reasons for the Christie Administration's advocacy (seen most recently in the Budget Address on Tuesday) for tenure reform and expanded school choice.

Here’s some highlights.

On the justification for modifications to SFRA:
In writing this Report, the Department began with a single question: Why has New Jersey’s achievement gap proven so resistant to the combination of Robinson, Abbott, and tens of billions of dollars? The Department quickly found the answer: New Jersey courts, the Legislature, and past Governors only got it half-right. They took an inarguable proposition – namely, that a school must have sufficient dollars to succeed – and twisted it into the wrongheaded notion that dollars alone equal success.
As an example, the report notes that only a combined 11.2% of students in Camden, Newark, and Asbury Park graduate high school by meeting College-Readiness benchmarks. While we’ve bridged spending gaps, we’ve failed to bridge achievement gaps. Some Abbott districts have demonstrated meaningful learning gains – the report singles out Vineland City, Middle Township, Orange City, Trenton – but many are stagnant, despite increased spending per pupil. “Spending in Camden rose 17% over this period [2002-2007], but its proficiency rate declined by 1 point.”

On the reasons to eliminate Adjustment Aid:
Adjustment Aid was a political add-on to the PJP process. [PJP: Professional Judgment Panel, comprised to build SFRA]. It served no purpose other than to hold all districts harmless in the transition from the old funding formula to the SFRA. It is a symbol of the old Trenton; a paean to the longstanding tradition of refusing to make hard choices even when hard choices are in order and failing to make hard choices will cost taxpayers greatly.
Poor schools won’t improve unless we reform tenure and eliminate LIFO, or last in, first out:
If New Jersey is to achieve the ultimate goal of Abbott – equal educational outcomes for all – several significant policy barriers must also be removed. Again, it is simply not reasonable or ultimately effective to continue to invest in our disadvantaged schools at these extraordinary levels while disregarding the embarrassing reality that New Jersey has actually codified practices that inhibit our collective ability to ensure that every student has a top-flight teacher in front of his/her class. If the ultimate goal is to graduate all children from high school ready for college and career, a rational observer must fairly ask why the urgent demands for additional funds are not accompanied by an equally strong insistence that we reform laws that demonstrably prevent us from meeting that goal.
Why we need tenure reform:
There are approximately 94,218 tenured teachers in New Jersey. That means that over the past ten years, .00022% of tenured teachers have been removed for incompetency or inefficiency. Whatever the number of teachers in our highest-needs schools who are not up to the job of adequately serving their students – and we should assume that it is low – it is certainly higher than .00022%. So long as we lack the political will to address this issue, no amount of resources is likely to bring about the improvements that these children deserve.
Why we need to eliminate LIFO:
To give one example, investing millions in reducing class size or adding teacher aides while ignoring State law that requires districts to preserve the jobs of demonstrably ineffective teachers and dismiss superior ones will not yield a different result for students. The research could not be clearer that great teachers are more important to learning outcomes than class size. To go one step further, we would have done more to preserve the true purposes of Abbott – reducing the achievement gap – by enjoining laws that actually inhibit student achievement than by merely demanding higher and higher spending. If we want to ensure that all students succeed, we need to start pursuing a slate of bold reforms and stop chasing the promised, but mythical, funding formula that will solve our educational woes.
The “final set of options” to improve educational outcomes of poor kids includes the Urban Hope Act (which allows independent non-profits to start up to four schools in Camden, Trenton, and Newark). Also,
The State’s inter-district choice program can play an important role
here. Through this program, the State can help direct students in troubled schools to higher performing schools in neighboring districts. Nonpublic schools could also become options; the Administration strongly supports the Opportunity Scholarship Act, a tuition tax credit program that would help low-income students in failing district schools transfer to higher performing private schools
The SFRA formula isn’t a fine enough tool when determining district attendance counts because districts only report on enrollment once a year, on Oct. 15th. (The Commissioner’s press release points out that only 10 other states in the country rely on “single count” days to determine actual enrollment.)
The single count day policy breeds a number of perversities and inequities, including: both under-funding and over-funding of districts when mid-year enrollment changes are not considered, and a lack of concern for encouraging attendance because districts receive funding based on their October 15th enrollment, regardless of attendance rates before or after that date. It is this last statement that is the most troubling.
The way we determine economic disadvantages is through the free and reduced lunch count. Here’s the problem:
Recently, the Office of the State Auditor released a report estimating that as many as 37% of the participants in the federally-administered Free and Reduced Price Lunch Program are fraudulently enrolled in the program. An even more recent Star-Ledger article seemed to confirm the fact when it reported that the President of the Elizabeth Board of Education, along with the spouses of two Elizabeth school officials, were arrested for misstating their incomes to qualify for the Program. Such a high error rate in a program so consequential for educationfunding gives the Department considerable pause.
In addition, this report recommends a Innovation Fund of $50 million to reward successful districts. This Fund is intended to address the shortcomings of an “education system where success goes unrecognized, innovation unrewarded, and New Jersey’s near 600 school districts serve as mere implementers of State-directed policies rather than incubators of innovation and partners in reform. This system must be changed, and creation of a modest “Innovation Fund” would do much to work that change."

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