Mayor Dave Fried of Robbinsville (Mercer County) has nothing good to say about NJ’s system of dividing up state aid to schools, especially when wealthy townships like his get short shrift. Today’s Trenton Times recounts Fried’s suggestion for school funding reform during a “State of the Township” speech:
Fried suggested divvying up two-thirds of the total state aid and equally distributing it to school districts according to student population. The remaining one-third of state aid could go towards urban school districts requiring extra assistance, such as Trenton, Newark and Camden, Fried said.
“It doesn’t have to be hard. This is fair. This is equal,” Fried said.
You can understand his consternation. Robbinsville Public Schools has an annual operating budget of $37,974,528. Almost all of that is covered by a local tax levy of $32,848,282. In order to keep taxes relatively low, Robbinsville kids end up with only $11,104 per pupil (that’s total budgetary cost), almost $3.5K less per year than the state average of about $14.5K.
But here’s the rub: if Fried’s school funding formula was implemented – and I’m not sure how you lump all NJ school districts into one group that divvies up 2/3 of state aid – aid to our needy Abbott districts would drop significantly. Currently NJ’s 31 poorest school districts (despite the implementation of a new school funding formula that was supposed to eliminate the Abbott designation and divide money not by district but by individual student need) receive about 60% of all state school aid. Fried’s proposal cuts that in half.
Our school funding system is broken, if you assume it ever worked at all. The flaws are at both ends: we lay the state’s burden to fund public education at the feet of local taxpayers, and we rely on the Courts to figure out how to compensate tax-poor communities. (The Corzine Administration did come up with the School Funding Reform Act, but it’s impossible to implement or fund.)
So good for Fried: he’s come up with a proposal that avoids the wackiness of Sen. Mike Doherty’s “fair tax” scheme – every kid gets the same aid regardless of need! – and pleads the case of wealthy towns like Robbinsville. It’s still impossible, but he could school the Legislature in creativity.
In related news, NJ Spotlight reports today that “Education Law Center [primary advocartes for Abbott districts] yesterday filed a motion with the state Supreme Court, under the landmark Abbott v. Burke ruling, taking Christie to task for failing to use the School Funding Reform Act’s (SFRA) formula at all in determining school aid for fiscal 2015.”
It has to be said again, and again, and again: New Jersey's distribution of K-12 aid is appallingly unfair and irrational. I worry that Mayor Fried overfocuses on the problems of Abbott overfunding and misses other problems of maldistribution outside the Abbotts, but I applaud any official who emphasizes the need to change the aid distribution.
I wouldn't say that Robbinsville is a “wealthy” town and this fact underscores how bad the aid distribution is. Robbinsville's per pupil valuation is less than $800,000 per student, which is above average, but not really high either. By contrast, Princeton has $1.9 million per student, Lawrence Township has $1.2 million, Hopewell Valley has $1.3 million per student, and West Windsor-Plainsboro has $1 million per student.
Despite having the lowest valuation per student in that Mercer County cluster, Robbinsville gets $805 per student, which is in the middle of those Mercer County suburbs. Hopewell Valley gets $702 per student, West Windsor-Plainsboro gets $764 per student, Lawrence Township gets $835 per student. Princeton, one of the highest-resource districts in NJ, gets $940 per student.
The Mercer County suburbs that have somewhat less valuation per student than Robbinsville, East Windsor ($641,965 per student) and Hamilton ($669,510 per student) also get dramatically more aid, $3,729 per student and $6042 per student, respectively. Hamilton's aid $73 million aid package is enormous. Hamilton alone gets MORE THAN DOUBLE the $27.5 million in state aid that Clark, Bergenfield, Dumont, Fort Lee, Hasbrouck Heights, Maywood, New Milford, Northvale, Rochelle Park, Wood Ridge, Nutley combined (all DFG FG peers) get.
Anyway, if you compared Robbinsville to more exurban towns outside of Mercer County (Marlboro gets $2200 per student, Hillsborough gets $3,600 per student, Randolph gets $2,600 per student) the disparities are even clearer. If you compare Robbinsville to what high-resource Interdistrict Choice districts get (Deal gets $12,600 per student, Stockton gets $5,500 per student, West Cape May gets $6,400 per student) the disparities are even more unacceptable.
Mayor Fried's proposal to divide 2/3 of the aid on a per pupil basis is interesting, but I think a more realistic reform is to eliminate Adjustment Aid.
Adjustment Aid = Gentrification Aid. I'd rather see that $555 million aid stream be rechanneled into Equalization Aid and the Categorical Aids.
It's ridiculous that Jersey City alone gets a fifth of all Adjustment Aid ($114,452,158). It's ridiculous that Hoboken, which has more than $4 million per student in valuation, gets $2044 in Adjustment Aid alone. It's ridiculous that Asbury Park gets $24,422,872 in Adjustment Aid alone ($10,609 per student). It's ridiculous that Adjustment Aid largely skips over the suburbs and also goes to rural districts that have also seen increases in wealth and/or decreases in student population.
If Adjustment Aid were eliminated the neediest districts in NJ would not be hurt either. Newark only gets $13 million in Adjustment Aid. Paterson gets $0. Elizabeth gets $0. In fact the real neediest districts would be helped if that money were redirected into other aids.
Let your proposal for funding be seen by investors