Justice Must Define School Funding Formula

Assemblyman Brandon Umba in his Asbury Press article (4/10/22) and  Insider NJ (4/17/22) , “It’s time to open up the school funding formula” (4/10/2022) has valid concerns about the inequitable and hidden parts of the school funding formula. But changing the formula does not address the imbalance not only in funding, but educational services afforded to our public-school children. Revising the school funding formula is a symptomatic response to an endemic problem. Complex school funding formulas meant to “equalize” educational opportunities treat the symptoms but not the causes and viable solutions to meeting children’s, parents, and taxpayers needs and concerns.

There are too many school districts in New Jersey, at last count over six hundred operating school districts as of 2020-21 (https://www.nj.gov/education/doedata/fact.shtml). These districts are identified by zip code, according to district wealth and housing patterns, that invariably result in de facto segregation by socioeconomic status (SES) and what we generically call race.

The Constitution of the State of New Jersey states that the Legislature shall provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of free public schools for the instruction of all children in the State between the ages of five and eighteen years.  (N.J. Const. art. VIII, sec. 4, par.1). (https://codes.findlaw.com/nj/title-18a-education/nj-st-sect-18a-7f-44.html) Mr. Umba explains that the school funding formula of 2008, still in effect, attempts to bridge funding gaps between what a school district can generate between property taxes and what is needed to provide a “adequate” education. This means the gap between wealthier and poorer districts. Why “adequate” when outstanding should be the standard for all districts?

Mr. Umba references that there are available funds for school infrastructure improvements districts that should be distributed. This is again a partial fix. We are in this conundrum given past practices. The school funding formula and other so called fiscal remedies released millions of dollars for school reconstruction to ‘economically’ disadvantaged “Abbott” districts, and exorbitant per pupil costs to the same and similar districts to somehow compensate for educational deficiencies defined as dollar lacking.

In Monmouth County, some designated Abbott districts received millions to rebuild schools, several in some cases, including early childhood learning centers, state of the art performing arts centers, science labs, and swimming pools. Other districts with similar SES student populations but not designated as Abbott districts received little to nothing. One of these districts is now discussing closing an early childhood learning center built with these funds due to declining enrollment.

These millions upon millions have been spent with dubious or inconsistent results to keep school districts separate. This is an odd response to the separate but equal argument seeking to keep schools segregated in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) that was found unconstitutional. In New Jersey these more recent excessive distributions of money referenced above in essence maintained separate school systems via financial fixes, money distributed to keep separate and de-facto segregated school systems in place.

There are efforts now in NJ to consolidate and regionalize school districts with the legislature looking at and encouraging ways to reorganize and create bridges between existing districts. That would mean changes in governance, administrative oversight, teaching staff, and hiring practices. It would also mean shared finances available for a range of educational services and expenses. Specifically, students would experience shared curriculum and a range of educational opportunities, teachers shared professional staff development related to curriculum, instruction, and assessment, more diverse and specialized in district special education services would be made available as opposed to costly out of district placements, magnet schools in the middle and elementary schools, academies in the high schools, and mentoring and vocational programs could be offered. These are just some best practices that could be entertained towards an outstanding student experience for all students.

What if we had integrated school systems from day one, beginning at preschool and kindergarten where children of different backgrounds, religion, and shades of color played together, ate together, learned together in all ways – not only the academics but the basics of respect, kindness, and decency to one another? We would minimally diminish the sense of unfamiliarity we all face because of the fear of not knowing each that enables bias, stereotyping, and ingrained racism.

To do this, special interests would be challenged and there would likely be strong and strident opposition. The New Jersey altar of home control would have to be relinquished, and funds to consolidate services and school systems in the best interest of students and their families would have to come first – not the political agendas of the most outspoken.

Just as millions have been spent to maintain and separate the over 600 districts reliant on the inequities of school funding for decades, financial incentives and steps are possible and overdue to pilot programs for cooperation and coordination between neighboring school districts. Pilot programs could be supported and funded to bring districts together in friendly competitions and collaborative ways. Joint special education services and joint professional staff development institutes are examples. Inter school district events other than the traditional sports competitions such as STEAM festivals, such as science fairs and robotic competitions that are learning opportunities, and fine and performing arts festivals could be planned, promoted, and implemented. Then our public education system via purposeful consolidation would become places where students could work, play, learn and break bread together; that is, grow and know one another.

Jonathan Shutman Ed.D.

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