Trenton Public Schools is an Abbott district, one of N.J.’s 31 neediest districts identified by the N.J. Supreme Court twenty-five years ago. Not all Abbotts are still needy, which is part of the problem with our archaic funding formula, and some non-Abbotts are under-funded. Jersey City and Hoboken are thriving, rapidly-gentrifying cities yet the state provides free preschool for all resident children. But Trenton is still poor and still in need of substantial state aid.
Trenton Public Schools has an operating budget of about $300,000,000 for its 13,000 students ($21 million comes from local property taxes) and is in fiscal disarray. According to the Star-Ledger, district officials just announced that they have a $5.9 million budget gap so will cut 164 jobs and close Stokes Early Childhood Learning Center, which serves both general and special education kids. Last year, the district cut 226 positions and closed another elementary school.
The problem is not profligacy. The annual per pupil cost in Trenton is only $17,154, $2K less than neighboring wealthy Princeton. Hardly fair, given the severe needs in Trenton. So what’s going on?
There are at least two pieces to this. One is the familiar problem in cities with low-performing schools where parents are exercising their right to school choice by enrolling children in growing public charter school sectors. Trenton Mayor Eric Jackson said, “As long as our children are leaving, it's going to continue to create a gap because the money leaves with the children. We have to figure out how to deal with that ... otherwise, every year this time, we're going to have the same issue."
And, indeed, this school year Trenton Public Schools paid $36,013,967 in charter school tuition, more than 10% of its annual budget. As education landscapes diversify from old-school non-choice models, traditional districts must make difficult adjustments.
The second piece to Trenton’s fiscal problems is special education. New Jersey has long struggled with the vast costs associated with educating special needs kids in a state with 591 school districts. Back in 2007, the N.J. School Boards Association estimated that we spend over $3.3 billion a year on special education (obviously more now) and the main driver is our habit of placing students with disabilities in out-of-district placements. NJSBA noted then that “out-of-district placements involve 10 percent of New Jersey’s special education population, but make up 40 percent of the total cost of special education,” or $1.3 billion. The only state in the country with a higher rate of out-of-district placements -- in either private schools or other public programs -- is Washington, D.C.
We see this reflected in Trenton.
According to DOE data, Trenton Public Schools classifies 1,640 children as eligible for special education services. They send 181 of these children to private special education placements and another 719 children to out-of-district public special education programs, most probably to the county program, Mercer County Special Services. Annual costs at these programs vary widely, but generally run about $40K-$90K per year, plus transportation.
In other words, Trenton is sending away 900 kids each day to other schools, almost ⅔ of their special needs population. This is not only fiscally unsound but a violation of I.D.E.A.’s mandate that children with disabilities remain in the least restrictive environment.
But who can blame the parents of these children for demanding their rights to a "free and appropriate public education"? After all, Trenton has a sordid history of providing special needs children with appropriate services within district. Last year the Trenton Times reported on “the forgotten bunch,” teenagers warehoused in the district’s “life skills” class:
Students mindlessly copy answers teachers have written in textbooks. No curriculum exists. The students, all high school age, sometimes color sheets of Disney characters in lieu of classwork. There’s no rhyme or reason as to who graduates or who stays on for another year.In 2010 the Times reported that the district had a $1.9 million dollar deficit because “last summer the district received bills for out-of-district special education programs it did not know students were attending.” Mark Cowell, the state fiscal monitor, told the school board, "[Trenton’s child study teams’ ] record keeping is not too good.”
In addition, auditors discovered that Trenton had not reported $3.2 million in bills from private out-of-district schools for special education students. The district also didn't record $6.7 million it owed for out-of-district tuition and employee health benefits.
There’s a Trenton trend here. Parents of general education kids are choosing charter schools. Parents of special education kids are choosing out-of-district schools. In both cases, the district’s fiscal position suffers. Meanwhile, N.J. legislators cringe at the thought of wrestling with special interests over a sustainable school funding formula
They’ll have to man up. There’s no other way, and Senate President Steve Sweeney has been slowly acknowledging this reality. Meanwhile, local school leaders must create great programs, general and special, that woo parents back. Maybe this is already happening. If it is, Trenton parents aren’t yet convinced.