Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Sad Saga of School Financing

A few weeks ago Governor Corzine set in motion yet another school funding formula.

Where do I begin to tell the story?

Here is where I came in. Roughly speaking some 30 years ago or so our state Supreme Court judged that school funding based on property taxes was inherently unfair and failed to meet the state standard of thorough and efficient education as mandated by state code. What to do? What to do? This issue is of course intimately intertwined with the Abbott court case that followed in the ‘ 90’s, again about the equitable distribution of monies for education.

Well, I recall after that first court ruling that the Atlantic City casinos were sold to a skeptical New Jersey public as a source of generating revenues for these under financed schools as well as generating revenues for senior citizens. After all, those pushing these projects needed to overcome the great fear that sin would overtake us all and “the mob” would be now be legitimized with bona fide businesses. Viva AC or Sodom and Gomorrah, depending on your faith. What better way to appease the skeptics than to give these monies over to the dear underprivileged children or grandma? What happened to these monies?

Let me guess. The bulk of the taxed revenues does not go to school districts or our seniors. In fact it seems that some senior income more or less finds its way into the slot machines. More vice versa than what we were sold. Probably the only the truth is that Atlantic City was re-vitalized and offered many new job opportunities that were sorely needed.

Next came the Abbott ruling and millions and millions of dollars were poured into specified school districts that were to have the same per pupil dollars that more wealthy municipalities bestowed on their students. The money was gathered and spent…on limousines for school board members to attend board meetings in Newark and the like. Not that all districts were so corrupt. My younger daughter works in an Abbott district that took some very constructive steps such as reducing the student to guidance counselor ratio and adding a resource center to teach parents the math the teachers were teaching their children. But there was corruption. Millions of our tax dollars were wasted. Those who pushed for Abbott did not take responsibility for seeing that the money was used wisely. Students were not educated.

And what do you know? After all the money thrown at it, quality education is still not achieved. So enter President Bush with “No Child Let Behind”. Manufactured by those not in education, it has had mixed results. Untested, it was mandated nationwide with no piloting. High performing districts and under performing ones are both subject to it. Here is the bottom line as I hear from the teachers’ mouths. They are spending an inordinate amount of the teaching time with lowest performing students at the expense of all their students and they are teaching to the test. Good teachers are leaving the profession in frustration. Cooperating teachers are not accepting student teachers because they may lose time to teach to the test. State tests are being “dumbed” down so schools do not lose funding. This is an improvement?

This new NJ funding scheme is supposed to make the distribution of monies still more equitable by attaching the money to the child via school lunch free lunch program, as I understand it. First reports are that it will squeeze money from the pockets of districts very much in need. Sounds like a reasonable objection. Do these lawmakers really know what they are doing regarding improving education on a grand scale?

Amid much housing development in Raritan Township, years ago Flemington Raritan underwent a massive growth spurt. The school district, despite just finishing the construction of the Desmares school, was faced with needing yet another elementary school and probably middle school. A member of the Flemington Raritan District Advisory suggested the committee investigate year round school as a cost effective means of dealing with the persistently increasing tax burden. I served on that excellent committee and learned that year round school did in fact increase test performance because the year round schedule kept students in rough areas in school year round. It was also cost effective because as the population waxed and waned, the schedule prevented the need for new schools to be built and then abandoned.

The citizens here soundly rejected the proposal and went for the money-spending route. We now have two new schools, Everrits Road and the new middle school. And maybe we can afford that luxury here and this is an excellent school district that does not need major overhaul. But I cannot help but think areas like Trenton and Camden and Newark are not just ideals places for year round school to be adopted for not only the cost cutting benefits but for the social one of keeping the students in the school environment year round.

If only our state Constitution mandated our legislators operate in a thorough and efficient manner, living up to their the full potential when addressing this concern about education. Maybe we would see more innovation if we withheld our legislators salaries the way “No Child Left Behind” withholds funding from under performing school districts.

In the absence of any real pressure on our legislators to perform to their full potential, New Jersey will no doubt in due time have another school funding formula and students who still cannot do addition.

Stay tuned.

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