This guest post was submitted by Brian Everett, who also writes at his own blog the South Jersey Report

New Jersey’s methodology of funding schools is at the center of everyone’s attention. The Governor has taken up the charge of asking the legislature to produce a plan before his term ends. The Senate President has asked several times for districts to become fully funded. And somewhere within almost all of these funding discussions among lawmakers and residents alike, we are on the cusp of class warfare in the Garden State. 

Dr. Danley described the heart wrenching events which recently occurred in Camden during a School Board meeting, where parents clashed against each other to protect their own local schools. The tough part for Camden is that the current educational reality is incredibly difficult to unravel or understand for someone who does not pay attention to the intricate webs of public schools v. charter v. uncommon v. renaissance. I am that person who does not understand all of the complex undertones of Camden Schools, but, I do know that there are so many things to take in to account when adequately, and equally funding Camden Schools. 

As Camden proceeds to make tough decisions about opening or closing schools, whether appropriately motivated or not, there is a growing population of suburban residents who appear to be taking to Governor Christie’s rhetoric, and demanding equal funding for their town’s schools seemingly at the expensive of our urban neighbors. What many do not understand, is that equal funding for education is not simply about a distribution of dollars, but we’ll dive down that rabbit hole another day. 

What folks need to understand right now is that we are beginning to see suburban towns struggle to maintain facilities all while paying a lot in property taxes to fund public schools. Additionally, suburban residents are now looking at the face value of state aid (the total) that places like Camden, Newark, and others receive, and crying foul. 

One Cherry Hill resident was recently featured by the Philadelphia Inquirer for his independent investigations which show a difference in per-pupil funding in Cherry Hill versus Camden for fixed building costs alone. Within the resident’s personal town council candidate page on Facebook, the findings are conveyed a bit differently than portrayed by the Inquirer. The assumption is that we have a difference in aid per-pupil, we do not understand why, so therefore, NJ taxpayers are, “wasting BILLIONS with Abbott Districts Fixed Costs” because of, “corruption”. 

We can trace the theme of demonizing Abbott funding to the Governor in 2011, when he claimed that 31 Abbott districts receive 70% of the total state aid. PolitiFact rated this claim as mostly true.

This is not to single out one resident’s claims. This is a shared viewpoint among many residents, media outlets, and lawmakers included. But I must suggest caution before proceeding much further. 

Public Policy is very complex, and follows Newton’s Third Law of Physics, where every action on policy will have an equal and opposite reaction. By focusing on huge sums of money that poorer districts receive as the sole problem, we’ve already forgotten about why these districts receive aid the way they do. (Equally concerning is President Trump’s proposal to rescind two old regulations for one new regulation, regardless of what any of the regulations were in place for. The focus on quantity over content could be disastrous.)  

So, by looking at what neighboring towns get and demanding that they receive less so that you can pay less, we are not considering the exact magnitude of poverty in which some cities exist. We are not considering the economic hell the entire state would be subjected to if dozens of school districts, and quite possibly municipalities too, fall into bankruptcy. 

We are in a tight spot here in New Jersey. Economic recovery has lagged behind the rest of the nation. Some confuse the tax breaks companies are receiving to move to Camden as another handout given to Camden, rather than the state-sponsored program (and Act) it is. I totally see Cherry Hill residents’ concerns about their own district. I am a product of those buildings (Kingston, Carusi, West), which are quickly approaching the century mark. 

But I’ve also studied and worked in Camden for 6 years now, and I see how educational dollars are only a fraction of the discussions we need to have in order to provide equal opportunities to achieve economic security for all. Pitting one school versus another for a dwindling pot of money is not the way to go. And neither is pitting one district against another for that same pot. The age of austerity budgeting, I think at least, is coming to a boiling point. When all parties tire of cutting staff and programs because there are none left to cut, maybe then lawmakers will seek to find alternative ways to raise revenues for education instead of relying on property taxes and philanthropy alone. It is proving unsustainable for the entire state.

Comments

  • It’s utterly insane to me that a lot of suburbanites would never step foot in Camden, but they think they can perfectly evaluate funding levels for schools they would never step foot inside. This is what segregation and ignorant rhetoric has gotten us, and it’s completely unacceptable.

    Two comments Brian makes speak to something I always think about. When he says “What folks need to understand right now is that we are beginning to see suburban towns struggle to maintain facilities all while paying a lot in property taxes to fund public schools.” and “We are not considering the economic hell the entire state would be subjected to if dozens of school districts, and quite possibly municipalities too, fall into bankruptcy.”, he hints at a problem New Jersey is going to have to deal with in the 21st century. That is, that its sprawling, low-density suburbia could never afford to pay for itself and the services it uses, and now that most suburban towns aren’t expanding anymore, they can no longer fool themselves into thinking that if they just build a little more sprawl on their edges, another subdivision or two, they’d take in enough in real estate taxes to pay for their schools (and roads, and sewers, and power lines, and parks, etc). New Jersey’s development model was doomed to fail, and we’re starting to see just that. Towns like Cherry Hill are honestly in much better condition than towns further out from the jobs that’re moving back to cities and the state’s traditional population centers. South Jersey in particular needs to recognize this real fast, since most of it was built after the invention of the car and thus is in particular peril once the full economic force of this problem hits.

    Going back to the issue of Cherry Hill residents having problems with Camden schools getting more money in aid than theirs, I’ve got a simple option for them: move to Camden. If you want an easy way that wouldn’t cost the state (and thus “taxpayers”) money all that much, set up a program to share the tax burden for education by moving wealthy suburbanites into struggling cities. Economic/class segregation is what created this problem to begin with, and it’s the reason Trenton had to start giving out more money to some places in the first place. Healthy places that don’t have to get taken over by the state have a wide array of people with different incomes and backgrounds while concentrating poverty is a guaranteed way to require state intervention. Get more middle and high income individuals in poor cities, and you’ll reduce the need for Trenton to send money to cities for a whole host of reasons.

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