Opinion: Finance, Testing and Charters, the Perennial Big Issues in New Jersey Education

Richard F. Keevey | December 13, 2019 | Opinion
The future of school financing in the state is uncertain, academic testing is a source of conflict and nothing stirs passions more than charter schools
Credit: Amanda Brown
Richard F. Keevey

I keep files on any subject you can think of; I can’t help it. No file is bigger than my education file — from school finance to academic testing to charter schools. These files increase as complaints grow about funding levels, testing controversies and critiques about charter schools. Each topic is worth pages of discussion but I simply want to make some broad observations on the issues.

This is important because New Jersey, including state and local governments, spends more money on K-12 education than any other program; it isn’t even close. The state spends $15.5 billion of its $39 billion budget, and the local taxpayers pay another $16.5 billion in property taxes.

But, as outlined below, the state has a bigger price tag awaiting — with no funding currently available.

School finance

Data from the National Education Association indicates New Jersey spends $20,465 per pupil, the third highest in the country. The average is $12,920; states like Florida and Texas average $10,000; Idaho is the lowest at $6,861.

Costs are high for several reasons including too many — as well as too poorly aligned — school districts; high teacher salaries; very expansive and expensive special education programs; a proliferation of overhead and administrative staff; and very expensive pension and health benefits.

The actual basis for determining funding levels can be traced to two significant New Jersey Supreme Court decisions — Robinson v. Cahill (1973); and Abbott v. Burke (1985). The history of Abbott v. Burke is long and involves 21 subsequent rulings, including rulings on the legitimacy of several funding formulae. In short, the court ruled the New Jersey constitution posits that every child is guaranteed a Thorough and Efficient education no matter where they live and no matter the wealth of the municipality in which the school district is located.

In fact, the courts took this provision so seriously they closed the schools in July 1976 until the state funded the formula by initiating an income tax with rates of 2% and 2½%. Abbott v. Burke is widely viewed as the most important education litigation for poor and minority children since Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision which established the unconstitutionality of racial segregation in public schools.

A specific Abbott decision is worth highlighting. The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled the state must provide dollars to certain school districts to fund construction as many of these districts had dilapidated buildings which hindered learning. To date, the state has sold $13 billion in bonds to partially address this issue. In the current budget $1.1 billion is allocated for debt service on those bonds. The Department of Education has recently identified numerous school facilities in need of repair. No dollar estimate has been released for that work, but it will be in the billions.

The school funding formula has been challenged by many plaintiffs and revised several times. Based on executive and legislative estimates, the current formula is underfunded between $1.3 and $ 1.8 billion — give or take a few million and depending on assumptions. Currently, some school districts are challenging their aid allocations as they believe their “fair” share is not being provided.

A scholarly treatise is necessary to explain the ins and outs of the formula to ascertain the validity of their claim, the claims of other districts and what a solution might be.

Furthermore, there is significant underfunding of the teachers’ pension and retirement health benefit systems, both of which the state funds. The net liability for both systems is $190 billion.

Future spending for K-12 schools are inevitable and very expensive.

Academic testing

Two topics — academic testing and charter schools — may appear easier to deal with. But I am not so sure. Both topics generate much controversy — unnecessary and counterproductive in my mind. Here are some thoughts shaped by my experience as a former school board president and university teacher at both undergraduate and graduate level.

The debate over testing is a disgrace; it is confusing and counterproductive. The state has operated PARCC-styled testing for several years, which has a defined set of tests for grades 3 through 10, with the final one required for graduation. The tests are used to judge student achievement and preparation for college or the workforce.

Presumably a new generation of testing is emerging. It is not yet approved; arguments between the state Board of Education and the administration are ongoing. The governor campaigned to change testing. We will still test grades 3 through 9 but develop a new test for grade 11 for graduation. The state will change the name and scope of the test; pay a consultant a large sum of money to develop new tests for each grade and unfortunately lose years of comparative data. Sounds like a bad choice to me.

It is difficult to summarize the real issue. Is it — the test was too hard; it takes up too much time; and many more subjective complaints? I assume arguments are made in good faith, but many are needless concerns and miss the point. Good testing and years of comparative data are critical for successful analysis and improved performance. Just having a new testing model that keeps certain folks happy is not a good option.

And testing should not be used to evaluate teacher performance. That is counterproductive. Teacher evaluations are critically important in improving education outcomes. We can all remember both the really good teachers we had and the really bad ones we suffered through. This important tool should not be decided by test scores. It can be done in much better ways.

What a waste of time and money — and more important, lots of needless confusion and anxiety for most parents and the public.

Charter schools

Nothing stirs the education community to hyperbole and passion more than the words “charter school.” It is fair to say the charter school concept is the most political element in current education philosophy. Some suggest charter schools drain money from “regular” schools and are a tool of conservatives to erode collective bargaining and other long-standing mores of good public education.

Let’s be clear: In New Jersey and most states, charters are part of the public-school system. Recent opinion pieces in both the New York Times and the Washington Post — hardly bastions of conservative philosophy — argue the virtues of charter schools, including more freedom to design programs, longer school days and provision of a unique opportunity that gives special attention to many struggling urban children.

Political figures such as President Obama and Senator, and former mayor of Newark, Cory Booker, have spoken to the value of charter schools. To quote the Washington Post editorial board of May 27, 2019, “there is nothing progressive about strangling charter schools.”

Charter schools are not a replacement for traditional schools, not all charter schools are good and bad ones need to be eliminated. But, blanket calls to limit such schools are just wrongheaded. There is a reason parents line up on waiting lists for charter schools that are high-quality. We did not need a charter school in the district I served nor do most school districts. But, some districts with poor academic performance have benefited from these schools — nationally and in New Jersey. In my opinion, the traditional school model and the charter school model can coexist successfully.

Key takeaways

The future of school financing in New Jersey is really troublesome. The current formula is underfunded by at least $ 1.3 billion and maybe much more. More bond funds are needed to repair the many lead-ridden and decrepit school buildings; and the severely underfunded teacher pension and health benefit systems will require extensive fiscal actions of some sort. Unfortunately, we cannot simply grow our way out of this huge emerging financial shortfall.

Obviously, school finance — the first element of my “three-legged educational stool” — is the most expensive issue facing the state as it will require more taxes and/or significant change in the way education is organized and configured. But, the two softer elements — the correct approach to academic testing and the correct balance between the charter school and the traditional school — also need attention.

These latter two issues are actually what parents really focus on for their children — what school model is best for my child? And, how can we be assured the learning process of my child is being effectively monitored, evaluated and improved.