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Senator Robert Singer

Senator Bob Singer

Singer Editorial: Fairness in School Funding

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The following editorial by Senator Robert Singer (R-30) on reforming the state’s flawed school funding formula was published by the Asbury Park Press on August 18, 2016:

The proposed “Fairness Formula” to reform school funding would result in property tax savings for 75 percent of homeowners. (SenateNJ.com)

A recent Asbury Park Press article on Governor Christie’s proposed “Fairness Formula” questioned if his plan to treat all New Jersey students equally would hurt New Jersey.

As proof that it would, a professor from the University of Nevada pointed to other states that are attempting to make their school funding systems more like ours.

Such comparisons are unwise, as are attempts by those states to replicate the flawed school funding logic that the New Jersey Supreme Court has forced upon Garden State taxpayers and students for the past 30 years.

In a well-intentioned, but failed, attempt to improve educational achievement in underperforming school districts, more than half of all state school aid has been allocated to just 31 so-called Abbott districts under the court’s direction.

While those districts received a total of $97 billion in state aid over the last three decades, the other 544 districts in the state received just $88 billion combined.

Despite this flood of money over many years, educational outcomes have not improved in these long-failing school districts.

In fact, the court’s only success has been to drive the average property tax bill in New Jersey to $8,353 per home – the highest in the nation.

This is a result of the massive inequities the court created by sending tens of thousands of dollars per student of state school aid to some districts, and just hundreds to others.

In the greatest examples of this disparity, Camden and Asbury Park receive around $30,000 of state aid per student, while North Caldwell and Haddonfield receive just $360 per student.

School districts along the Jersey Shore don’t fare much better with the aid they receive under the current formula: Brick – $4,045/student; Lakewood – $4,093/student; Toms River – $4,344/student; and Wall – $1,003/student.

The Fairness Formula seeks to end this inequity by implementing a new school funding formula that is simple, fair and transparent.

Under the Governor’s plan, every school district in the state would receive an identical $6,599 per student enrolled.

Homeowners in 75 percent of school districts could expect their property tax bills to drop – many by thousands per year.

This plan directly challenges the fallacy that simply spending more money is the key to educational success in underperforming districts.

We’ve tried that approach, and it’s failed.

We also spent billions more building new schools hoping that would improve student achievement. Unfortunately, that hasn’t moved the needle either.

It’s hard to deny that many century old schools need to be replaced, but spending $100 million on individual schools with luxuries like swimming pools and field turf is foolish.

Kids in those districts still aren’t graduating at higher rates or better prepared for college or the workforce.

The professor from Nevada lamented the possibility that New Jersey may finally turn away from our expensive school funding failure just as other states imprudently attempt to repeat our mistakes.

She compared us to California, Rhode Island and North Dakota, without providing any context. To do so is extremely misleading.

While New Jersey spends an average of $19,651 per student, California spends just $10,288.

Unless the Golden State doubles its spending – which is doubtful – they’ll still spend significantly less than we do.

Rhode Island and North Dakota have just 142,000 and 106,000 students, respectively. New Jersey has 1.37 million.

Our 31 Abbott districts – which receive the majority of state school aid – have more students than both of those states combined.

Tweaking their formulas to address subsets of already small student populations would have minimal cost effects relative to New Jersey.

Regardless, we’ve already done what they are looking to do, and we’ve proven that it simply doesn’t work.

Recognizing this failure, legislators from both parties have followed Governor Christie’s lead by offering their own plans to reform school funding.

The Senate President’s proposal, for example, would create a commission to study school funding and provide a “take-it-or-leave-it” recommendation for the Legislature to vote on.

Since the commission would be tasked with fully funding our current formula, the resulting recommendation would likely require a $2 billion tax increase on New Jersey residents.

That simply perpetuates the myth that we need more money, when it’s the inequity in current aid distribution that’s the problem for most districts.

What we really need is a fair balance.

I believe the Fairness Formula, which treats all students equally, is the right approach for our schools and the most affordable plan for New Jersey taxpayers.

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