The Newark Challenge: Solve for Per-Pupil Costs

John Mooney | October 6, 2010 | Education
Determining what Newark spends each year on its students can depend on what’s being counted -- and who’s doing the counting

Need proof that the debate over how to improve Newark public schools is going to be hard-fought and contentious? Just look at the dispute over what New Jersey’s largest school system spends on each child’s education.

Gov. Chris Christie has crisscrossed the state quoting a $24,000 per-student figure as he promotes his education reform proposals, led by his plans for overhauling Newark schools with the help of a $100 million gift from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

“How can you fail at $24,000 per student?” Christie said, disparaging the district at an Old Bridge appearance last week. “Go to Newark and see what’s happening, and see if you can possibly learn with that leadership — or lack of leadership.”

Dueling Numbers

But Christie’s per-student figure isn’t the only one quoted for the district, even by his own administration.

The state Department of Education’s Comparative Spending Guide puts the cost at $16,911 – a dramatic drop from the year before and from the $18,378 listed in its latest School Report Card.

State officials said those figures do not include all expenditure accounts, which are removed to make comparisons more valid across disparate districts.

As for the governor’s number, a state Department of Education spokesman said it came from a 2008 report by the Newark advocacy organization, Excellent Education for Everyone, a group controversial for leading efforts to bring private school vouchers to New Jersey.

Money for Nothing

In its report on Newark schools, titled “Money for Nothing,” the figure cited was an estimated $23,141 per child for 2007-08, including pensions and other benefit costs paid by the state and not in the district’s budget.

The report took the district’s total budget for 2006-07 of $936 million, added FICA and state pension costs, subtracted the budgeted amounts for outside charter and preschool children, and divided the remainder by the K-12 enrollment of 41,000 students.

The group’s director said the figure was an estimate calculated by Peter Denton, the group’s founder and a southern New Jersey businessman, and former education commissioner David Hespe, now the Willingboro school superintendent.

“That report is good work,” said Derrell Bradford, executive director of the group, known as E3. “In all seriousness, it is sound and based on wholly reasonable estimates.”

Late yesterday, the state education department spokesman also cited an August report of the National Center for Education Statistics, the federal government’s education data clearinghouse, which put the median for Newark at $23,500 per student for 2007-08.

Questioning the Governor

Whatever the correct number — if there is a correct number — the argument spilled into a legislative hearing yesterday. Chairing the Joint Committee on Public Schools, state Senator Ronald Rice (D-Essex) openly disputed the $24,000 figure cited by Christie, and quizzed state education officials to where it came from and why it differed so much from other state figures.

Rice said Christie has been inflating the costs to demonize the city’s schools in New Jersey and across the country in Republican fundraising appearances.

“I think it’s more for the public relations aspect than the politics,” he said.

Still, the correct per-pupil costs are significant to policy as well. Much of the state’s funding formula is based on a per-pupil basis, depending on the different needs of students for low-income, language limitations and other disadvantages. For that formula, the state uses the lower comparative figures, although it has not fully funded the formula for the last two years.

The Education Law Center, which has led the state’s epic Abbott v. Burke litigation, has maintained that Newark actually spends less than $11,000 per child, when factoring in the different weights required under the School Funding Reform Act.

The Newark-based center’s director, David Sciarra, said the E3 report and even that of the national center are “deeply problemmatic” and fail to account for how fairly the state funds schools.

Late yesterday, Rice’s committee staff said it was still waiting for the Christie administration’s formal explanation of its figures. Leaving the hearing, Rice said whatever the math, in the end it should at least be applied to all districts and not just to Newark.

“If they’re going to throw in the whole kitchen sink, then they at least should do it with everyone,” he said.