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

By Dale Mezzacappa on Oct 11, 2013 04:47 PM

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."


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Comments (10)

Submitted by Poogie (not verified) on October 12, 2013 6:07 pm
The Courts in PA are never going to order more money to poor schools like Philadelphia. The issue was decided in 1997 when the Supreme Court refused to hear a case out of Philadelphia called, Marrero v. Commonwealth and Association of Rural and Small Schools v. Commonwealth. They confirmed the finding of the Commonwealth Court which held that there is no evidence that more money means better schools. The court cited the fact that the best schools in the nation according to standardized tests come from places like Vermont NH and North Dakota. States that get good scores with low per student expenditure. The fact that these state shave hardly any minority children didn't matter at all. Did it? But the fact is that Pennsylvania Courts are powerless to force the legislature to do big policy changes that involves ordering funding. According to the 1968 PA Constitution the State must pay for the costs of running the Common Pleas in each county. It does not do that despite a Supreme Court Order that must be 40 years old at this point. The Legislature just told the Supreme Court No. It allegley threaten to impeach any Judge that tried to enforce this order. Stuff like that just does not happen in states like NJ which abide by the Rule of Law. But we live in PA so what can you do? Now if the Legislature does not listen to the Supreme Court when it tells it to fund Courts what are the chances it listens when ordered to fund schools in a county most Pennsylvania look upon as an outpost of Sodom and Gomorrah on Earth?
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 12, 2013 9:59 pm
Are you suggesting that minority children are not as intelligent as white kids?
Submitted by Poogie (not verified) on October 12, 2013 10:31 pm
Not at all I only telling you that the PA Supreme Court has ruled that districts with lots of poor children are entitled to no more state money or support than students who could from more prepared backgrounds. Who am I to argue with the highest legal geniuses in Pennsylvania? I am just telling you that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania does not believe it has a duty to provide more money to poor districts. . Our Supreme Court ascribes to the quote of Anatole France who said, "In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets and steal loaves of bread". Only our Supreme Court Justice are not being Ironic.
Submitted by Go-Eagles (not verified) on October 13, 2013 2:12 pm
One of the real underlying issues is that we have too many school districts here in the commonwealth. There are school districts that have less than 800 kids. Yes. 800 kids. We have poor districts bordering rich districts. Quite frankly, parents want segregation by zip codes. They want neighborhood schools. There are too many turf wars. The state needs to force more mergers like Center and Monaca forming Central Valley. Many districts and parents like the status quo with no changes.
Submitted by Anonymously Anon (not verified) on October 12, 2013 9:06 pm
If you expect schools in the poorest districts to turn around the academic achievement of this nation's poorest students then there need to be more resources. You need teachers who teach a reasonable number of students so they can give everyone enough attention and can assign rigorous assignments that provide nuanced feedback and take longer to grade (read: essays). You need reading specialists to help those who are especially behind. You need counselors who help deal with the home issues of abandonment, drugs, and abuse that plague so many students and their families so that students can focus adequately on school. I want PA to provide the resources to help poor students, but I know it will he a hard sell. In the end, they need to stop pretending that teachers in Philly can bring students at a 1st grade level to a 7th grade level while they expect teachers in the suburbs to bring their students with high school reading levels to... 7th grade reading levels. These deficits cannot be solved only in school even with more resources but it will at least improve them drastically. Students from poorer, less educated homes need more instruction time and more individualized instructional time.
Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on October 14, 2013 8:15 am
Thank you Anonymously Anon! That is exactly what is needed for Philadelphia's schoolchildren. Small class sizes in grades Pre K-6, a certified reading specialist for every student who falls behind in very small group settings, and a transitional first grade for every kindergarten student who is not ready for first grade yet. One year's growth in reading level takes one year's amount of time under normal conditions. There are no miracles. Cognitive growth takes place over time and must be nurtured all along the way. But of course, what we get are split classes which makes a teacher's job almost impossible for many teachers who have needy students and must meet their individual needs. And finally, of course, the educational needs of students will be thrown by the wayside while the powers to be decide who is going to be "given" schools for them to profit from. So sad to see education come to what it has become. Thank you for your honesty, which is my theme for this year -- It is time to be honest.
Submitted by Anonymous. (not verified) on October 13, 2013 10:49 pm
Just the fact that we're arguing over "Fair Funding" speaks volumes. The people need to demand justice not argue about it. There is no there legitimate side to the argument. Why are we even contemplating such foolishness?? FUND the F............SCHOOLS !!!!!!!!
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 14, 2013 5:37 am
Can someone please confirm? I just heard that the recent peaceful demonstration by students at Constitution High School protesting funding inequities and the subsequent loss of teaching staff was put to an abrupt halt by principal T. Davidson, WHO CALLED THE POLICE ON HIS OWN STUDENTS!!! Later, he allegedly held a school meeting to justify his actions and he was roundly booed by the entire student body. My neighbor, who has a son in attendance there, said the students uniformly LOATHE the man and are seething over his inflammatory action. Can someone give me the true story?
Submitted by A Teacher (not verified) on October 15, 2013 1:25 pm
This was the story done by the Notebook. Hope this helps!
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 9, 2014 5:35 pm
I live in NJ and have studied state aid very closely. Yes, NJ's Abbott districts are very well funded, but obviously this is hugely expensive. 55% of the state's K-12 aid goes to the Abbotts (who educate only 20% of the state's children). NJ also has made the same pension promises as New York and also has very high taxes, and yet NJ's pension woes are the most serious in the country alone with Illinois'. It isn't a coincidence that we have a utopian commitment to our poorest cities and a severely underfunded pension system. Also, the fact that so much money goes to the 31 Abbotts means that there is a lot less left over for other districts that are nearly as poor and yet, for arcane reasons, not part of the Abbott lawsuit. Districts like Belleville, Clifton, and Bloomfield barely have greater resources than Newark, Elizabeth, and East Orange, and yet they get a quarter to half of the per student aid. Since their local resources are so meager, these districts end up spending $11-12,000 per student whereas Newark and Elizabeth spend around $20,000 a student.

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