Why would Gov. Christie propose a school funding reform plan that hasn’t a ghost of a chance of passing through the Legislature?
That’s the question that stumps me. I have a few guesses. First a little background.
Yesterday our esteemed leader went to Hillsborough, NJ, a not-so-overtaxed suburb, and called for a dramatic reversal of the state’s school funding plan called SFRA. Now, let’s be fair: SFRA is unsustainable. No governor has ever been able to squeeze enough cash from state coffers to fully fund this exorbitant formula. (Jon Corzine did so in 2008, SFRA’s fledgling year, but only by using ARRA money, a one-time, unrenewable revenue stream from the feds.) So, yes, we need a new school funding plan but Christie’s “Fairness Formula” -- a flat $6,599 per pupil (with exceptions for kids with disabilities) -- is blatantly discriminatory against districts with low tax bases like Newark, Camden, and Trenton. Rutgers law professor Robert Williams said that it "flies in the face of the core requirements of the New Jersey Supreme Court over the years.”
Senate President Steve Sweeney and Senate Education Committee Chair Teresa Ruiz issued a joint statement that said in part, "we want to pursue excellence in education, not limit it to those who already possess the advantages."
But not according to Christie. "This is huge," he said. "Huge.” Actually, he didn't say that but he did say "it will be a big focus for me and a lot of my time will be spent on it."
Here’s reactions from NJEA, Star-Ledger columnists Tom Moran and Paul Mulshine (the only commentator who liked the idea, mostly because he said he thought of it first), NJ School Boards Association, and Jeff Bennett. Here’s news coverage from the Wall St. Journal, NJ Spotlight, Star-Ledger, Philadelphia Inquirer, Bloomberg, Reuters, the Press of Atlantic City, My Central Jersey, and the Asbury Park Press. Education Law Center's David Sciarra is quoted in most of these stories.
Now, let’s be clear. SFRA is dead, created in boom times when money grew on trees and the endgame was to eliminate Abbott-based school aid. (Talking to you, NJEA and ELC.). With apologies to Monty Python, if we hadn't nailed SFRA to the perch 'it would be pushing up the daisies." However, while Asbury Park Public Schools shouldn’t be funded at $33,699 per student, Camden Public Schools shouldn't have its funding cut by 78%, which is what would happen under Christie's plan.
We need some other progressive school funding formula that is based on realistic revenue streams, codifies the need for multiple supplementary services for poor students, and recognizes that all state taxpayers are responsible for providing public schooling for New Jersey's children, regardless of personal zip codes.
Christie’s “Fairness Formula” meets none of these criteria and will never pass muster in the Legislature, let alone the courts. He’s not stupid. He knows this. So why propose it in the first place?
Here are some guesses.
NJ Spotlight editor John Mooney: “Almost Donald Trump-like in both concept and execution, the plan looks as if it is going nowhere fast -- immediately drawing criticism and rebuke from Democrats who will in all likelihood control the outcome. But it’s sure to garner headlines and a lot of talk, maybe that was Christie’s plan all along.”
Star-Ledger editor Tom Moran: "He has been watching Donald Trump with a cold and cynical eye. And he's learned that whipping up resentment against "the other" can be a winning political strategy. Trump is focusing on Muslims and Mexicans. Christie, with his polls in Nixon territory, is going after urban school children.”
Montclair State University professor Bridget Harrison: "Mr. Christie hoped the move would deflect some of the scrutiny from the George Washington Bridge lane-closure scandal, especially as he could be under consideration for a high-level appointment with Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee. Here we see a heavily damaged Gov. Christie attempting to remain politically relevant both in the state and nationally."
Here’s some other guesses. Feel free to offer your own.
- Christie is stricken by criticism that he’s abandoned N.J. to pick up Big Macs for Donald Trump and so he is using this proposal to create the perception that he’s actually in town.
- He thinks that upper and middle-class suburbanites are selfish enough to rally around a school funding scheme that decimates poor urban districts but lowers their own tax bills. (This is actually the scariest scenario because it might work: after all, lots of people voted for Trump, right?)
- He's lost his social conscience (which I do believe he once had).
- It’s all a game. He’s going to announce tomorrow that he was really just kidding.
- He’s suffering from trauma after Sunday’s “Game of Thrones” episode and mourning the impaling of Rickon Stark or, alternatively, grieving Ramsay Bolton’s metamorphosis to dog food.
- The “Fairness Formula” is part I of his plan. Part 2 is that he’s going to build a wall around Princeton (home of the Governor’s mansion) and wealthy, white, suburban Mendham Township (home of the Christie family) and residents of Camden, Newark, and Trenton will pay for it.