Education Professor Calls Governor’s Fairness Formula ‘Misleading’

In the midst of the budget battle, Gov. Chris Christie’s lobbed a grenade of a proposal that would radically alter state aid for schools. His so-called “fairness formula” would dismantle the funding imposed by the Abbott ruling 31 years ago that gave poor, urban districts substantially more than wealthy districts. It instead would give a flat $6,599 to every student in the state. Tomorrow, the governor will be campaigning to get a constitutional amendment on the November ballot. Today Seton Hall University‘s Education Professor Dan Katz is saying not so fast. He spoke with NJTV News Anchor Mary Alice Williams.

Williams: Professor, you said that Gov. Christie was intentionally misleading in what he was saying about that. What do you mean?

Katz: Well, I think he’s not providing any of the context for people that he’s trying to sell this idea to understand. Certainly not the 30-year history of the Abbot ruling and all of the follow-up rulings. The current fair funding formula that was hammered out in 2008 has been the result of 30 years of both litigation and legislation to try to arrive at a way of looking at the needs of a district based on the needs of its students.

Williams: But he says that he pointed to, among others, Asbury Park, who gets $33,000 per student but only has a 66 percent graduation rate. He’s cited that as evidence that throwing money at the problem is not improving education.

Katz: Well he’s simply wrong on the research. The fact of the matter is that we can look at any individual Abbott district, or any district that gets additional funds through the fair student funding allocations and probably find ways in which that money could be spent more efficiently and possibly look at whether or not their allocations are really what they need to be. But David Goldstein pointed out this week also that among the states in the nation where there are districts with high concentrations of poverty and very high-need students, New Jersey does actually very well and over the history of the Abbot decision those kinds of issues and those kinds of concerns have actually improved substantially.

Williams: When Gov. Christie talks about Abbott districts, charter schools in Abbott districts like Newark and Camden, he says they’re doing more with less.

Katz: And he’s being misleading again. Many of those schools do not simply have the same student characters as their host districts. Many of those schools get what’s called pass through funding. So funding that goes to the district and is counted as the district’s money ends up flowing to those charter schools.

Williams: Do they have as difficult a student population?

Katz: No. And the statistics and research out of Rutgers absolutely proves this. For example North Star Academy, the governor loves to talk about North Star Academy in Newark, they are currently spending somewhere in the vicinity of $3,000 to $4,000 less per pupil on student services such as working with high needs IEP students, English language learners…

Williams: Because those kids aren’t there.

Katz: Right. Exactly, or when they are they tend to attrit very, very quickly.

Williams: Let’s look at the other side of this. Suburban districts, the wealthier districts, are going to get property tax cuts and more money per student. Is that a bad thing?

Katz: Well, it’s a bad thing when it chips away at a 30-year long agreement on the idea of equity. The governor is calling this an equity formula and that reverses the entire concept of equity right on its head. The whole idea of equity is that you give people what they need so that they can have an equal chance. Equality is supposed to be a goal of the education system, but equity is one of the tools that we use to get there. The fact of the matter is that when you have schools that have high concentrations of students who need social work services, that costs more money per pupil. High percentages of students who are second language learners, that costs more.

Williams: Now, some special needs money is going to districts with high concentrations?

Katz: Absolutely. Which brings another point is that Julia Sass Ruben, down at Rutgers in Public Policy, pointed out that when you set aside from the $9.1 billion pool of money that the governor says he wants to distribute equally, money for special needs students, money for the pre-kindergarten programs and when you try to preserve funding that would directly go to charter schools, it only comes out to about $4,800 per student across the state that he would have available to distribute.

Williams: Very quickly, Senate President Steve Sweeney is proposing a commission to figure out what to do. You’re on the commission. What are you going to do?

Katz: I’m going to ask for a top to bottom examination as to how the money is distributed. I’m going to call for the SFRA [School Funding Reform Act] to be fully funded, which it has not been pretty much for the entirety of Gov. Christie’s tenure in office, and I’m going to ask the governor’s office if he’s dissatisfied with the results in Abbott districts to remind him that the largest Abbott districts are directly under his control.