School Funding Drinking Game: Count Those Proposals!

I curled up in front of CNN on the evening of November 8th, cozied by a glass of wine and presumptions of a Clinton victory. The next day, shell-shocked,  I recalled Peter Thiel’s analysis that those who dismissed Trump as a sure loser took him literally but not seriously, while Trump supporters took him seriously but not literally.

We were all wrong, judging by the first two weeks of his presidency. In this short time our leader has managed to alienate Mexico, Australia, Germany, and China; give alt-right Steve Bannon control of the West Wing; and, just yesterday, make intemperate and ignorant remarks about Black History Month. We should have taken Trump seriously and literally.

Let’s make this a teachable moment in New Jersey as we confront the unsustainability of the state’s 2008 school funding formula, or SFRA, which we have managed to fully fund exactly once.  A host of political leaders are vaunting divergent and (mostly)  unsustainable proposals to “fix” SFRA. Let’s take them seriously and literally.

I failed to do so when I heard about Christie’s “Fair Funding Formula,” which NJ Spotlight, reporting on the State Supreme Court’s rebuke this week of his plan, described (fairly) as “essentially eviscerating the court’s decrees of the past three decades.” Christie would create a flat funding per pupil of $6,599 per student, plunging districts like Newark, Camden, and Trenton into fiscal chaos and heaping riches upon wealthy districts like Princeton and his hometown Mendham. In order to be implemented, the Court would have to agree to shelve the old Abbott rulings that direct vast amounts of state aid to an antiquated list of thirty-one districts, some of which remain poor and some of which are newly-gentrified.

I took Christie seriously in that I thought he was trying to fairly redistribute state aid to districts that have minimal tax bases to draw on to fund schools. I didn’t take him literally, didn’t imagine that a leader who seemed committed to educational equity would think that less than seven thousand dollars a year would suffice for low-income students. Now I think he was serious and literal. Sad.

Assemblyman Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson) and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Murphy claim that they can “fully fund SFRA," although Prieto is open to a few tweaks.  This would require an additional annual infusion of two billion dollars per year. For context, N.J.’s annual budget is $35 billion a year and state school aid is currently about $8 billion. The math is impossible. They must know this. They can’t be literal, despite hurrahs from NJEA, Education Law Center, and Princeton-based Save our Schools-NJ.

I don’t know enough about Prieto, except to note, as Jeff Bennet at NJ Education Aid has, that he is a lackey of Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop.  Fulop had hoped to launch his own gubernatorial run until Murphy out-maneuvered him and remains committed to not reassessing his city’s ratables in order to maintain the fiction that Jersey City is poor and entitled to its current $480 million a year in state school aid. I suppose we should, like Christie, take Prieto seriously and literally.

Murphy? This Goldman Sachs multi-millionaire surely must know that the state can’t afford to fully fund SFRA. He surely must know that the state can't provide free full-day kindergarten for an additional 45,000 children at $600 million a year. (N.J.’s pays $13,500 per student per year.) He surely must know that the state can’t afford to “fully fund teacher pensions,” another $2 million a year if you’re keeping track.

Yet that’s his platform; hence, his early endorsement from NJEA. .

I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and hope that he is serious about fairly funding schools but not literal about his promises.

Steve Sweeney is the only leader who has a serious proposal, one he’s created with collaboration from Senate Education Committee Chair Teresa Ruiz. Sure, he waves at fully funding SFRA, but the heart of his proposal  is the creation of a four-member “State School Funding Fairness Commission” that would examine current tax bases, eliminate Adjustment Aid (which holds harmless not-so-poor districts like Jersey City, Hoboken, and Asbury Park), and review the Abbott list. While his plan and Prieto's overlap, Sweeney would wisely leave the allocations to a Commission (with an up or down vote from the Legislature)  while Prieto would leave it to legislators, with their own special interests, to allocate funds.

Sweeney, apparently, can do math. He’s also the only one out there with a school funding proposal that I can take both literally and seriously. But I still need that glass of wine.

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