Opinion: What’s Wrong with Christie’s Wrongheaded School-Aid Plan?

Mark Weber | June 24, 2016 | Opinion
We need to see the governor’s proposal for what it really is: a cynical ploy to court voters on the far right

Mark Weber
If there were any doubts that Gov. Chris Christie has mentally checked out of the State House, they were laid to rest this Tuesday when the governor presented his utterly absurd state aid proposal for New Jersey’s schools.

Just how outrageous is Christie’s plan? It’s so crazy that it would actually make more sense to build a wall along the Rio Grande and expect Mexico to pay for it (oh, wait …).

In contradiction to repeated rulings by the New Jersey Supreme Court, a large and growing body of education research, and plain old commonsense, Christie has embraced the notion of “fair funding” for New Jersey’s public schools.

While the details put out by the governor’s office are (typically) light, the basic idea is similar to a plan long pushed by tea-gulpin’ Republican State Senator Mike Doherty. The entire pot of state aid for schools (with the exception of special-education aid) would be divided evenly among all districts by student enrollment.

Currently, New Jersey’s School Funding Reform Act (SFRA) “weights” student enrollments, allocating more funds to districts that serve greater proportions of students in economic disadvantage or who have limited proficiency in English (LEP).

Weighted funding is the rational response to a host of evidence that shows money does matter in schooling, and districts serving more at-risk students need more resources to provide them with an adequate education.

Certainly, Christie must believe more funding leads to better schools: why else would he send his own children to well-resourced private schools with per-pupil spending budgets well in excess of the average New Jersey public school?

In his speech, however, Christie attempted to make the case that districts serving many at-risk students don’t need more funding. His proof, bizarrely, was the “success” of a few select charter schools in urban centers with large enrollments of students of color.

The first problem with this argument is that Christie hasn’t even followed the SFRA formula: this year, according to the Education Law Center, schools were underfunded by $1 billion. This follows years of cumulative underfunding of SFRA. How are New Jersey’s urban districts supposed to help their students meet the state’s tough new standards when they aren’t given the resources the state’s own law says they need?

Next, Christie conveniently forgets that his administration is directly responsible for managing the four state-run districts — Newark, Jersey City, Paterson, and Camden — and has installed fiscal monitors in other districts like Asbury Park and Trenton. If there is “failure” in those districts, it is entirely the responsibility of Chris Christie.

Finally, as I’ve shown in my own research, the comparisons between charters and their host districts don’t hold up simply because the two sectors serve fundamentally different populations of students Charters, on average, enroll fewer at-risk students, far fewer LEP students, and far fewer students with special-education disabilities — particularly high-cost disabilities.

But even setting that aside, Christie’s plan would inevitably punish the very charter schools he holds up as exemplars. Charters rely on state aid “pass-throughs” from their host school districts. If Christie cuts aid to Newark and Paterson and Camden, he will, effectively, be cutting aid to a large portion of the charter sector.

Or does he plan to continue to “hold harmless” charter schools in their funding, as is currently the case? He certainly implied that in an interview with NJ Spotlight after Tuesday’s press conference. If so, the additional financial blow to districts like Newark with large charter enrollments could be catastrophic.

Christie also wants to cut aid to the districts that are least able to raise revenues through local taxes. Suppose two districts want to spend equivalent amounts per pupil on schools, but one district has greater property wealth. The property-poor district has to tax its citizens at a higher rate to get the same amount of funding as a property-rich district.

Removing any consideration of a district’s ability to raise funds for its schools from the state aid system is a recipe for inequitably funded education. Districts with low property values will have no choice but to slash programs, increase class sizes, and settle for underqualified teachers.

Is this really the legacy Chris Christie wants?

I doubt it. Repeatedly, Christie has put forward policies that have no chance of gaining political support, let alone passing constitutional muster. There is simply no way the courts, the Legislature, or the public will allow this to go forward.

I will be the first to agree that we need to have a serious conversation about reworking New Jersey’s school-funding formula. It is indefensible to continue to allow a gentrified city like Hoboken to shirk its responsibility to pay its local fair share for schools while working-class cities like Dover and Bayonne continue to struggle to fund their districts.

But Christie’s illogical and unconstitutional plan keeps us from having that conversation. I can only hope the Legislature, the state’s education stakeholders, and the prospective gubernatorial candidates treat Christie’s plan for what it is: a cynical ploy to court the far-right political base he needs to continue his political career.

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