A Few Corrections to Dana Goldstein's Slate Piece on Christie's School Funding Proposal

Dana Goldstein has an article in Slate today called “Chris Christie’s Education Plan is Shocking.” While there’s much to like about her criticism of Christie’s state school aid proposal, which would allot a flat amount of $6,599 per child, regardless of zip code (special education students would be exempt), here are  a few corrections and quibbles.

Goldstein writes,
With this plan, the governor hopes to lower taxes and end a state program that sends extra money to schools that educate at-risk children. Lest you have any doubt about whom Christie is trying to protect with his “equalization” plan, consider the fact that although his proposal would cut supplemental funding for poor children and English language learners, it would continue to send extra money to children with learning disabilities—a group, unlike the other two, that is majority white.
Actually, N.J. shares a disproportionality problem common to states throughout the country: we overclassify kids of color, especially African-American boys, for special education.. For example, 40% of pupils at Camden High School are designated “students with disability.” Talk about shocking: this deftly cloaked expression of the belief gap common in low-income traditional schools translates into something like "these kids can’t learn because they’re neurologically deficient."

Goldstein continues,
 Today, thanks to a revised funding formula crafted by both Democrats and Republicans, the state sends extra per-pupil dollars not only to those 31 “Abbott districts” but to students in any district who are poor, learning to speak English, or disabled. Cities and towns with large groups of those kids receive additional money to compensate for the challenges that come with concentrated poverty, such as the need to hire social workers or bilingual teachers.
Not really. While our "revised funding formula" called the School Funding Reform Act (SFRA) is supposed to supplant outdated Abbott lists, the amount of money required to fund it is unsustainable and profligate. No governor has managed the trick. So the state was ordered by the court to revert back to Abbott funding. The result is that a fairly substantial number of non-Abbott N.J. school districts are poor and under-funded. And some of the Abbotts (Jersey City and Hoboken jump to mind) are over-funded because the list of “Abbott” districts  (named for the first plaintiff in the case, Raymond Abbott, a student in Camden)  is obsolete and doesn’t account for trends of gentrification and rising wealth.

For example, as Jeff Bennett reports, Clifton Township Public Schools (Passaic County), largely Black and Hispanic, has a free and reduced lunch eligibility rate of 56%  -- about the same as Hoboken -- and only $11,837 to spend per pupil, well below adequacy and about $3,000 below the state average. Yet the state only kicks in $2,300 a student.

In contrast, Hoboken schools, with a similar socio-economic profile, has $23,250 to spend per pupil, more than twice that of Clifton.

Next, Goldstein says that while children  in districts like Camden and Newark “continue to struggle,”  student outcomes are better than in other states. And if  their performance isn’t up to par “the person ultimately accountable...is Chris Christie.” (Mark Weber makes a similar argument in today's NJ Spotlight.)

First of all, Newark has been under state control for 21 years, so Christie is merely the last in a long list of culpable governors. Goldstein also fails to mention the impact of charter schools on student performance. These innovative public schools, fueled by ever-more-empowered parents, are changing N.J.'s educational landscape.

Currently over 30% of students in Newark are enrolled in charter schools. At KIPP’s TEAM and Uncommon’s North Star campuses in particular, student outcomes far exceed those at the traditional district schools, even though the charters get less money per student.

The same narrative applies to Camden, where  new hybrid traditional/charter schools called “renaissance schools” (enabled through a bipartisan bill in the Legislature called the Urban Hope Act)  are flourishing. Parents continue to line up for seats and student outcomes are rising.

But before the advent of expanded school choice in Camden through the renaissance program, student performance was dismal. That was after 15 years of sky-high pupil spending.

When the State Supreme Court created the Abbott school funding system, Justice Robert Wilentz wrote
We note the convincing proofs in this record that funding alone will not achieve the constitutional mandate of an equal education in these poorer urban districts; that without educational reform, the money may accomplish nothing;and that in these districts, substantial, far-reaching change in education is absolutely essential to success.
In other words, money is necessary but not sufficient. But Goldstein presents the story of N.J. school funding as if money alone closes achievement gaps.

I’m no fan of Christie’s “reverse Robin Hood” school funding plan (check out my blog entries this week) which would take money away from poor districts and send them to wealthy suburban ones. But the Abbott formula is outdated and its hypothetical replacement, SFRA, is unsustainable.

 I agree that Christie should be ashamed of himself (if he’s still capable of self-reflection) for presenting an inequitable and unethical school funding plan that is so unconstitutional that it would require an voter-approved referendum. But let’s not pretend that Abbott worked either. Asbury Park Public Schools, the poster child for Abbott failure, currently gets $33,109 per student, almost all in state aid, and has been meteorically funded for twenty years, Last year 2% of Asbury Park High School students met the bar for proficiency in math. Average SAT scores were 328 in reading, 358 in math, and 321 in writing.

Money is necessary but not sufficient.

What’s made the difference for students in some of N.J.’s poor cities who, as Goldstein writes, do indeed outperform demographically-similar students in other states? Three strategies: New Jersey’s early adoption of the Common Core standards, an emphasis on data transparency and accountability, and the expansion of school choice. The latter, in particular, increasingly offers low-income parents access to higher-performing schools that no funding formula, no matter how generous, will ever achieve.

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