Here's Why New Jersey's School Aid Formula is Broken

Today the Star-Ledger marvels over the new Phillipsburg High School building, a "sprawling 326,000-square-foot school built atop a hill off Belvidere Road in Lopatcong Township.” Built to accommodate 1,630 students in this Warren County district, the school boasts a 1,000 seat auditorium, food court and patio, a 2,400-seat gym,an 8,900-square-foot auxiliary gym and a fitness center, a greenhouse, an industrial/technology wing, and a TV/radio studio.

All for a mere $127.5 million, built by the much-maligned Schools Development Authority, and paid for by state funds because Phillipsburg is an Abbott district.

When we think of Abbott districts in N.J., we think of truly impoverished towns that require compensatory funding. For some Abbotts that’s still true: Camden, Newark, Trenton. For other districts on the outdated, odd, arbitrary list compiled twenty-five years ago by Education Law Center during the Abbott v. Burke litigation, Abbott designations are just plain wrong. 

At Phillipsburg High School, for example, 31% of students are eligible for free and reduced lunch, well below other non-Abbott districts that don’t have the fiscal advantages of Abbotts, like state-funded school buildings. For example, at Belleville High School located in a non-Abbott Essex County district, 53.5% of students qualify for free and reduced lunch.

In Phillipsburg, the average property tax bill is $4,130 because the state picks up so much of the cost of local education. In far poorer Belleville (with slightly lower enrollment), the average property tax bill is $8,585. (See Jeff Bennett for a thorough drill-down, including disparities between Abbotts and poor non-Abbotts for  a category called “fair share.”) The state contributes $37,683,171 to Phillipsburg and $26,503,551 to Belleville. Residents of Phillipsburg also get free pre-school, one of the Abbott requirements that N.J. maintains even in rapidly-gentrifying districts like Jersey City and Hoboken.

And here’s the killer: Phillipsburg is able to spend $16,847 per pupil. In Belleville it's a paltry $11,528.

There will be no greenhouses, TV studios, or free pre-school in the far-needier school district of Belleville 

Christie’s flat school funding proposal is ethically and fiscally wrong. But so is our current school funding scheme, adamantly defended by Education Law Center, NJEA, and Save Our Schools-NJ.

Wanna really save our schools? It's time for a complete state aid overhaul that is sustainable (i.e., not SFRA) and fair. 

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