Has Abbott Funding "Helped Close the Gap in Test Scores"?

Today’s Business Section of the New York Times has an article by Eduardo Porter about the inequitable distribution of public money to school districts within states. For example, in New York “the wealthiest 10 percent of school districts, in rich enclaves like Bridgehampton and Amagansett on Long Island, spent $25,505 on average per pupil. In the poorest 10 percent of New York’s school districts — in cities like Elmira, which has double the nation’s poverty rate and half its median family income — the average spending per student was only $12,861.”

This disparity isn’t true in New Jersey, although it was thirty years ago when local districts were solely responsible for raising money through taxes to pay for schools. But in 1990  the second Abbott ruling from the State Supreme Court ordered that NJ equalize spending in our 31 poorest districts (known as “Abbotts”), in addition to offering compensatory services. In order to comply with the Court mandate NJ imposed an income tax, which enabled the state to fairly appropriate school aid.

NJ’s average cost per pupil is $18,047. Among Abbotts, we spend about $23K per pupil in Newark and a little more in Camden. Trenton gets about $20K per student and Asbury Park gets around $30K.  (The real outlier is tiny Avalon, a 400-student non-Abbott K-8 district in Cape May County which educates kids at $41,656 per year each. Gotta hand it to home rule.)

Porter, though, focuses on our less-enlightened fellow states, like a district in Utah that spends only $5,321 per pupil per year.  He interviews Andreas Schleicher of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, who tells him that “[t]he bottom line is that the vast majority of O.E.C.D. countries either invest equally into every student or disproportionately more into disadvantaged students. The U.S. is one of the few countries doing the opposite.” Porter adds, “the inequity of education finance in the United States is a feature of the system, not a bug, stemming from its great degree of decentralization and its reliance on local property taxes.”

Porter then holds NJ up as a paragon of fair funding – which it is. He writes,
Litigation has worked to some extent. But it is a blunt tool. In New Jersey, a host of state Supreme Court decisions over the last 30 years radically improved the funding in 31 poor urban school districts, and helped close the gap in test scores with more affluent schools. But one unintended consequence is that poor rural districts have lost funding.
Whoa! Our Abbott decisions “helped close the gap with more affluent schools”? What’s Porter drinking?

From our 2011 NAEP scores in 8th grade math:
In 2011, Black students in New Jersey had an average score that was lower than that of White students by 33 points. In 1990, the average score for Black students was lower than that of White students by 38 points.In 2011, Hispanic students in New Jersey had an average score that was lower than that of White students by 30 points. In 1990, the average score for Hispanic students was lower than that of White students by 37 points.
Better? A little: from 1990-2011, the length of Abbott funding, black students closed the achievement gap by 5 points, leaving a 33 point disparity. For Hispanic students the gap lessened by 7 points, leaving a 30 point disparity. That's still a gaping chasm compared with student achievement in "more affluent schools."

Now, any fair school funding formula must equalize cost per pupil across an economically diverse state, in addition to providing compensatory funding for special needs. And poverty is one of the most daunting challenges to a student's academic growth.  But let’s not pretend that equitable school aid is a panacea for equalizing student achievement. New Jersey's history of school funding tells us that, indeed, that's hardly the case.

* FYI: new NAEP scores come out tomorrow.

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