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The argument over fair funding continues; some look to N.J. for a better way

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Across the river in New Jersey, the neediest school districts have more money per student to spend, not less, than their nearby and generally better-off neighbors.

What a concept.

This is directly opposite to the situation in Pennsylvania, where wealthy districts spend more and the gap is growing.

And where Philadelphia, the state’s largest city, is so starved for funds that its schools lack counselors, librarians, full-time nurses, and other basic services, as Gov. Corbett’s administration holds back $45 million in allocated state funds while awaiting reforms in the teachers’ contract.

This week, a coalition of civil rights leaders, including representatives from the NAACP, the National Urban League and the National Conference on Civil Rights, sent a letter to Corbett calling Philadelphia’s situation "an embarrassment to the entire nation." The coalition called on Pennsylvania to develop a rational funding formula for schools and for Corbett to immediately release the $45 million to Philadelphia.

Corbett’s response, through a spokesman, was to argue that his administration actually has increased education spending (much of the money he refers to has gone to teacher pensions, not to fund programs in schools) and that the General Assembly specified that reforms were a prerequisite to releasing the $45 million.

People who support Corbett’s position often point to Camden, which spends $20,000 or more per student and gets mostly dismal results, as a rationale for requiring reforms as a condition for more resources.

David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center of New Jersey, was among those who appeared at a Wednesday forum on school funding co-sponsored by Mayor Nutter’s office, and he spoke to the Camden example.

Sciarra, who has been fighting the funding battle in New Jersey for decades, calls that argument disingenuous.

"Camden is the poorest city in the United States," he said. The same people don’t often cite other factors about New Jersey — that other low-income districts that have been given more money under New Jersey’s system are doing well and that overall, low-income students in the Garden State rank high on national tests.

In 2011, New Jersey’s low-income students ranked first in the country in Grade 4 reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress exam, he said, while only four states outperformed the state’s low-income students in Grade 4 Math. In Grade 8, New Jersey ranked third in reading and fourth in math.

Sciarra said New Jersey ranks 10th in graduation rates for African American students, who are disproportionately concentrated in poor districts, but many of the states ahead of it, including South Dakota and Maine, have few African American students.

A bit of background: The way New Jersey funds schools today is largely the result of legal cases going back to the 1970s. The state’s Supreme Court has been very specific in ordering the legislature to fully fund schools and to make sure that the state’s 31 poorest districts receive more money — recognizing that they have greater needs. Those are the so-called "Abbott" districts, named after the Jersey City schoolboy who was the lead plaintiff in the funding case known as Abbott v. Burke.

The New Jersey Supreme Court has also over the years required the state to fund full-day preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds in the state.

This contrasts with Pennsylvania, whose (elected) judges — New Jersey has an appointed judiciary — have consistently ruled that school funding is a political and legislative matter, not one that can be adjudicated. The courts here have ruled this way even though New Jersey and Pennsylvania have identical wording in their state constitutions saying that each child is entitled to a "thorough and efficient" education.

The most recent ruling in the Abbott case was in 2008, when a new formula was established. New Jersey’s formula starts with a basic amount for each student — $9,700. Then it add weights for student characteristics that make them more expensive to educate. Included are poverty, learning English, and special education status. The weight for poverty isn’t uniform — it goes up depending on how concentrated a district’s poverty is. This recognizes that concentrated poverty, not just the existence of individual low-income children, creates additional burdens on schools and districts — Camden being a prime example.

In some of the 31 Abbott districts, the money has made huge differences in achievement. Often cited is Union City, a low-income but vibrant community with a large immigrant population (you drive through it on your way to the NJ Turnpike from the Lincoln Tunnel). It has a graduation rate of 89 percent, above the state average.

Sciarra emphasizes that money isn’t a panacea, but a "foundation" necessary on which to build additional reforms. Nor is New Jersey’s situation ideal. Although the formula is explicit and fair, it isn’t always fully funded; Gov. Chris Christie, in fact, has cut back education spending. Low-income districts that aren’t among the original Abbott group, like Camden’s neighbor Pennsauken, have seen their spending lag behind need. And N.J. property taxes remain among the highest in the nation.

But New Jersey at least recognizes that it is self-defeating public policy to continually demand that districts with limited resources of their own and high concentrations of poverty — and all the needs and difficulties that come with that — achieve more with less resources.

Adequate funding, said Sciarra, "is a building block. Money alone isn’t the anwer. It also needs to be effectively used."

But it is only common sense to realize that "funding is an essential precondition to having a strong system of public schools."