Here’s a must-read piece in today’s Education Week on the current court battle about New Jersey’s school funding formula. Since 1981 when Abbott v Burke was first filed, we’ve struggled with how to equitably divvy up school funds. When local municipalities are responsible for most school costs through property taxes, poorer towns get short shrift. The Abbott decisions created a two-tier system: 31 districts were declared “Abbott districts” because high poverty rates rendered adequate funding impossible, and the justices ruled that the state would funnel enough money into those districts to raise them to the level of New Jersey’s wealthiest school districts.
Right now 20% of kids in New Jersey live in Abbott districts and those kids get more than 50% of the State’s pot.
The State DOE is arguing that the courts should set aside the Abbott decisions in favor of the “new funding formula” because more and more poor kids are living in non-Abbott districts. According to the EdWeek article,
“Under the old system, if you lived in one of [the Abbott] communities, whether you were rich or poor, you got those resources,” Commissioner of Education Lucille E. Davy said in an interview last week. “If you were poor and lived somewhere else, you didn’t. This tries to bring more-equitable resource distribution to all children regardless of where they live.”
It’s true that our demographics are changing. A report from Rutgers on strategic planning discusses our growing diversity:
New Jersey’s demographic profile is one of the most diverse in the country. New Jersey Department of Labor population projections through 2005 indicate significant growth in minority representation, both in general and among the traditional college-age population. Overall, the state’s white population is projected to grow by 1%, New Jersey’s African-American population is projected to increase by 15%, and other minority populations (Asians and Pacific Islanders; and American Indians, Eskimos, and Aleuts) by 134%. By 2005, nonwhites are projected to constitute 23% of New Jersey’s total population, and 27% of the 15-24 year olds.4 The Latino population is also expected to increase, as is New Jersey’s immigrant population. It is anticipated that Rutgers’ future student body will be increasingly diverse, reflective of the composition of the state as a whole.
There’s a mantra that’s chanted by many converts at local and state educational meetings: “The money should follow the child.” In other words, the allotment of state aid should not be dependent on location, but on the residence of the individual child. There are poor kids in Princeton and Moorestown, so goes the argument, and, one would suppose, rich kids in Newark and Camden. Let the State be responsible for creating a weighted formula that adjusts funding per child based on socio-economic strata, special needs, ESL, etc.
It makes sense (though David Sciarra, the lead attorney for the Abbott kids is violently opposed to the idea). If a child needs extra services in order to receive a “thorough and efficient” education, then affix the services to the child, regardless of their home address (ohmmmm). But here’s the catch: is there any evidence anywhere to support the theory that the NJ DOE is capable of administering such a complex system?
Families move all the time — especially impoverished ones. Can you imagine the DOE accurately and promptly readjusting allocations so that the money really does “follow the child?” Right now districts are still waiting on the DOE for test scores from last Spring. Forgive my skepticism.