By Diane Gooch
When the New Jersey Supreme Court recently ruled that the state must increase funding to 31 school districts in the amount of $500 million, it was both a gross display of judicial activism and worse, it perpetuated a bad public policy.
The Governor and Legislature, not the courts, should be deciding spending priorities, and while it is tempting to oppose this ruling on that fact alone, it is not the ruling’s most fatal flaw. That is why you see the Governor avoiding a confrontation with the legitimacy of the court’s action. Turning this into a battle over “separation of powers” will divert too much attention from the main event, which is how to change the state’s arcane and ineffective school funding formula to maximize the benefit to our students. Abbott districts were created by a court ruling in 1985 to mitigate the inequity in school funding between urban districts with higher poverty and suburban districts with more wealth. Subsequent court rulings and governmental actions have followed, all in an effort to equalize funding discrepancies. Since wealthier districts were able to benefit from significant stronger property tax revenue base, the Abbotts needed the state to compensate for their lack of funding with more education aid. In the mid-90s, attempts to equalize the districts included things like capping how much wealthier districts can spend on education and changing the spending ratio based on student population. Eventually, equalization in spending was achieved by the latter part of the decade. However, the inertia behind increasing funding to the Abbotts and limiting spending by wealthier districts became uncontrollable.
A tectonic shift occurred in the completely opposite direction. The more urban districts began spending more than the suburban districts at a growing and alarming rate.
For example, the average per child expenditure on education in New Jersey is roughly $12,000. Looking at Monmouth County, a wealthier school like Rumson spends roughly the average of $13,188. In Asbury Park, an Abbott district, it is $24,428.
We don’t ever think of public policy as having an expiration date, but it seems as if our funding formula is far past its optimal effectiveness. Included in that should be the notion that money solves the problem when it comes to education. This is evidenced by the continually poor performance of the Abbott school districts, despite sharp increases in education spending and a virtual monopoly of state education aid. That is why the most recent ruling by the New Jersey Supreme Court is so flawed. It props up a system that not only fails the state’s taxpayers, but more importantly our public school students. Real education reform has to be student-centered and get greater accountability for the millions of dollars invested in our schools.
Unfortunately, it seems the New Jersey Supreme Court has come down on the side of those who believe foolishly that we can just throw more money to ‘at risk’ districts to get results. In short, this court action is best defined by Albert Einstein’s description of insanity: “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”