BREAKING: State School Board Overrules Murphy’s DOE and Says ‘No’ To Lowering Graduation StandardsFebruary 2, 2022
Update: Murphy’s Education Department Fought the Board and the Board WonFebruary 3, 2022
Here we go again. Bruce Baker and Mark Weber (aka Jersey Jazzman) have another report up at New Jersey Policy Perspective and it’s a doozy.
Why is “New Jersey State Funding: The Higher the Goals, the Higher the Costs” so noteworthy?
Not because of the data Weber and Baker include but because of the data they leave out.
On the surface their thesis is sound: If we want our students to learn more in K-12 schools, we need to fund these schools properly. And, as NJ raises its standards for proficiency (apparently they weren’t listening to yesterday’s State Board of Education meeting) we should increase the amount of money we send to districts because more money=higher proficiency rates. (We’ll leave that alone for now.) So Weber/Baker argue our 2008 school funding formula, fondly known as SFRA, was created when we had lower expectations for student achievement. Now that we’ve raised our standards due to Common Core and aligned tests, SFRA needs to allot more money per student.
For proof they look at school funding in two wealthy states with high achievement like NJ: Massachusetts and Connecticut. If we could match the per pupil allocations in those states for low-income students (who they identify as Black and Latino) we’d achieve educational equity. Voila!
Baker/Weber’s primary example is Trenton Public Schools District, currently funded at $18,022 per pupil. That’s too low, they say: the student enrollment is 90% Black and Hispanic, 49% low-income, with 28% English Language Learners. According to their calculations, Trenton students are underfunded by $22,000. So we need to readjust SFRA so that each student in Trenton receives $40,000 annually.
After all, that’s how Massachusetts and Connecticut keep their proficiency rates so high, right?
Let’s look at the data. According to the Massachusetts Education Department, the highest allocation is for Provincetown, a whopping $40,538 per student per year. That’s what we’re supposed to give to Trenton students; if we did, according to Baker/Weber’s premise, Trenton’s proficiency rates in reading and math would soar, well above the current 9% who are considered “college and career ready” once they graduate from high school.
But Provincetown doesn’t get so much money because its students are low-income and of color. It gets so much money because it’s tiny and inefficient: there are only 171 students in the whole district! Also, since race is such an indictator of poverty for Baker/Weber, more than 55% of students in Provincetown are white.
The second highest cost-per-pupil district in MA is Wellfleet, which spends $28,837 per pupil. How many kids in the district? 129. These are wealthy shore districts with huge tax bases. Yet Baker/Weber ignore these important distinctions, mainly that such small districts require more overhead to balance their budgets. Think of NJ’s Spring Lake Borough School District with a grand total of 196 students (3 are Hispanic and 5 are Black) with an annual cost per pupil of $41,663.
Are those Spring Lake kids all from low-income homes? Are they new English speakers? Hardly. They’re almost all white and native English speakers. The average home price there, by the way, is $1.2 million.
Yet Baker/Weber ignore these factors because they have to buck up their flawed reasoning.
Now let’s look at a district in MA that’s not so tiny: Boston. Among its 65,000 students, 78% are low-income and 72% are Black or Hispanic. What’s their cost per pupil? $24,000, more than Trenton for sure but not twice as much as Baker/Weber propose.
Here’s a quick look at Connecticut. One of the state’s most impoverished districts is Waterbury, where 81% of students are Black and Hispanic and 68% are low-income. What’s the cost per pupil there? $17,954 per student
In other words, the state school funding formulas Baker/Weber say we should use as models don’t implement the formulas they propose. Their report is only convincing if one doesn’t question their numbers. especially they way they cherry-pick certain data points and leave others out to justify their flawed thesis. Now, that’s not to say that SFRA is perfect: it’s not and could certainly use some recalibration. (The census approach to special education funding is especially egregious.)
So what would happen if the Murphy Administration implemented Baker/Weber’s proposal to stop “underfund[ing] large, high-poverty school districts with high Black and/or Latinx student populations”? Here are the numbers from the report:
Let’s do the math. NJ’s total 2022 budget is $47 billion. The proper funding for these 11 districts, Weber/Baker say, would cost the state an addition $2.2 billion. That’s a 4.7% increase in the state budget, plus attendant increase in pension costs and social security, for a politically-motivated canard that presumes increases in student proficiency are solely a result of cash. And that doesn’t factor in whatever percentage of our other 588 school districts qualify by their calculation for a funding boost. I’d love to know what they’d say about Asbury Park, which spent $40,000 per student while proficiency in math and reading remained in the cellar.
Baker/Weber’s approach, to steal a quip from StateAidGuy, is like rating sports teams by their individual payrolls.
Sure, it would be easy if additional money would fix schools. Unfortunately it takes far more: As Chief Justice Robert Wilentz wrote in the second Abbott decision, “the convincing proofs in this record that funding alone will not achieve the constitutional mandate of an equal education in these poorer urban districts; that without educational reform, the money may accomplish nothing; and that in these districts, substantial, far-reaching change in education is absolutely essential to success.”
But Baker/Weber are only interested in more money. That’s their shortcoming and, thus, the shortcomings of their new report.