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Op-Ed: Latest Research Shows New Jersey Slipping on Fair School Funding

Under the current administration, the Garden State has seen its 'fairness rating' drop from second to 12th place nationally

Danielle Farrie

New Jersey consistently ranks as having among the nation’s fairest systems of public school funding. However, the latest results in Is School Funding Fair? A National Report Card show an alarming slippage on this key indicator of state education performance.

The National Report Card (NRC) examines the condition of the 50 state school-finance systems on four key “fairness” measures: funding level, funding distribution, state fiscal effort, and public school coverage. A fair funding system is one that provides a sufficient level of funding distributed to account for the additional needs generated by student poverty, an essential foundation for ensuring all children the opportunity for educational success.

The third edition of the NRC analyzes data from 2007 through 2011.

In the first and second editions of the NRC, New Jersey received high marks in all four areas. But the results from 2010 and 2011 show a significant decline in the all-important measure of funding distribution relative to student poverty.

From 2007 through 2009, school funding in the Garden State was the second most fair, or “progressive,” in the nation. High-poverty districts were funded at levels approximately 40 percent greater than low-poverty districts. In 2010, the level dropped to 25 percent, and by 2011, it fell even further to 7 percent, driving New Jersey from second to 12th place nationally. Overall funding levels also declined, with average per pupil funding in 2011 more than $1,300 below the 2007 average.

While the data from the third edition of the NRC covers the timeframe when all states struggled under the effects of the Great Recession, no state had a decline in fairness as dramatic as New Jersey’s.

In 2010, New Jersey, like other states, used temporary federal stimulus funds to prevent drastic cuts to the education budget, but still withheld aid increases to many districts under the State’s funding formula, the School Funding Reform Act of 2008 (SFRA). The SFRA formula is weighted to provide more funding to at-risk students, students in high poverty schools, and English language learners.

That same year, Gov. Chris Christie made midyear cuts that disproportionately affected low-income districts. In 2011, Christie again cut school aid by a whopping $1.2 billion. This cut is responsible for New Jersey’s steep drop in funding fairness.

Fairness should improve in 2012 as a result of the New Jersey Supreme Court’s order in the landmark Abbott v. Burke lawsuit. The Court directed Christie to restore $500 million to the state’s former Abbott districts. However, other poor districts did not have their funding restored, and the Governor’s last two budgets -- 2012 and 2013 -- failed to fund the increases required by the SFRA formula.

These troubling results are a warning for the Garden State to get back on track toward full funding of the SFRA. New Jersey’s progressive funding is the result of decades of persistent advocacy on behalf of the state’s most vulnerable children. In a few short years, New Jersey has reversed course, sacrificing fair school funding in the midst of the economic recession. For this system to maintain its leadership in academic performance, the upcoming state budget must honor the promise of equitable funding enacted in the SFRA. New Jersey cannot let its national prominence as a leader in school funding equity slip away.

Danielle Farrie is research director at the Education Law Center (ELC) in Newark, and co-author of Is School Funding Fair? A National Report Card, along with Bruce Baker of the Rutgers Graduate School of Education and David Sciarra, executive director of ELC.

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