Friday, June 24, 2016

Aleksandr's Excellent Question

Culturegeist's Friday night DVD
Tonight was going to be a night off from blogging, director Christopher Nolan's 2014 scf-fi epic Interstellar was in my mailbox (from Netflix) when I got home from a long day's work and I was all set to make dinner, prop my feet up and watch it with my trusty cat Buster snoozing at my feet.

But I went to check my blog stats and saw that a reader named Aleksandr Petrov had posted an excellent comment in response to my previous blog in which I suggested that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's "Fairness Formula" isn't really fair.

Aleksandr asked:

"How about fairness to my children from (a) "rich" district? Why (should they) get nothing from state taxes I pay?"

Excellent question Aleksandr, and obviously a complex one, I'll postpone my interstellar adventure to try and answer it.

For those who haven't heard, on Tuesday Governor Christie announced an initiative he calls his "Fairness Formula", which would cap all state funding for New Jersey public schools students at $6,599 per pupil - regardless of the school.

Now Aleksandr's question echoes the feeling of many people in New Jersey, and I respect his concerns and felt compelled to offer an answer. I went to post my answer to to his comment but found I had exceeded the number of words allows in a reply comment; so I decided to just blog my answer.

From the context of Governor Christie's "Fairness Formula", I think a major part of the problem stems from the way that New Jersey's public schools are organized and funded. NJ school districts exist in silos broken up by individual districts, often a stones throw from one another, separated by communities where the tax base is more of a boundary than a physical barrier like a road, a fence or a river.

Inside the Supreme Court posted an excellent analysis online that explores the impact of how the steady decrease in federal funding of American public schools over the years has put more and more of the financial burden on states and local municipalities and districts to fund their public schools:

The opening of the article points out that a 1973 Supreme Court decision ruled that a formula of public school funding based on local property taxes does not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

The end result is the situation we currently have here in NJ, and in many other states.

As the Top Masters article observes:

"Such a system has created what many school districts view as an unequal distribution of wealth that amounts to wealth discrimination, as more affluent school districts with more business and higher residential property values have been more able to raise more money from local sources than poor districts for more than 40 years now."

So with all due respect Aleksandr, your children do not get "nothing" from the taxes you pay, by their living in a more affluent district than say, East Orange or Trenton, they are getting a lot more in terms of the quality of the public school education they receive by virtue of your ability to afford to live where you do.

East Orange High School
It's far easier for the public schools in your district to attract more qualified teachers and administrators who want to ply their skills in an educational environment where the schools are adequately funded, are better organized and better managed.

Are all communities the same?

Obviously not.

And no one, including me, is going to fault you or any other hard-working parent who wants the best for their children.

To me, the silos and little fiefdoms in NJ are a waste of both human and physical capital.

Let's look at Mercer County as an example.

I was fortunate enough to graduate from West Windsor-Plainsboro South HS, regarded as one of the top public high schools in the nation for years.

WWPSHS is no more than about 15 minutes from Trenton Central HS; but in terms of the disparities in the quality of education, the management and administration of the school systems and the school facilities; they might as well be on different sides of the moon.

Is that the fault of the students growing up in urban districts with under-performing schools?

President Harry S. Truman
I would argue that it's the responsibility of the administrators and school board members, and their inability to operate more efficiently is partly to blame; like Harry S. Truman I'm a "Buck Stops Here" kinda guy.

I actually agree with some of the arguments Governor Christie used in announcing his "Fairness Formula' initiative.

On average Trenton spends about the 3rd highest in the state per pupil, yet they have one of the lowest graduation rates and one of the worst attendance rates in New Jersey.

The Newark school system was so dysfunctional, the state took it over; not that they did any better, was the state's decision to eliminate attendance counselors and truant officers in 2013 really a smart thing to do?

The state-takeover doesn't mean every administrator and teacher in the Newark public school system was a self-serving individual with no concern for the welfare of students - but decades of poor leadership like that has consequences in terms of attracting additional funding.

Earlier this spring, Trenton laid of 164 public school teachers because they were unable to secure additional state funds to help alleviate a $5.9 million deficit.

But if Christie had his way and cut over 50% of the state funding from Trenton schools (who already lost 164 teachers) where does that leave the children?

Some are migrating to charter schools like the highly respected Foundation Academy, one of the best (if not THE best) school in Trenton, where students adhere to strict dress and behavioral codes and parents are required to play an active role on working with the school to play an essential role as liason between teacher and student. And students excel there.

Chris Christie: Sorry urban public schools
But that's another part of the problem with Christie's "Fairness Formula".

Christie is very much guided by a privatization mindset, so stripping under-performing public schools of resources also serves his goal of channeling more taxpayer funds to charter schools.

So yes, Foundation Academy students are excelling, and that's a good thing.

But remember, these are the same kids from the same communities who'd otherwise be attending more poorly run schools in Trenton that have been marginalized in), charter schools are siphoning off talent (talented teachers, students & administrators) and badly needed taxpayer funds from public schools.

Which brings me back to Mercer County, if Mercer County had a unified school system, more resources would be available to all schools. Just consider what superintendents are making in each of these individual school districts.

A unified Mercer County school system would have more power and influence too.

Instead we rely on a formula where individual districts drive the funding for their schools, creating in effect, public schools which are essentially separate and unequal. Even though they may be only a few miles from one another.

Don't get me wrong, I don't pine for some kind of socialist utopian fantasy, what bothers me is how Americans have sat back and allowed the federal government to absolve itself of responsibility for sufficiently funding public schools; even as We the People fund disastrous wars in the middle east to the tune of TRILLIONS of dollars. Why?

In part because of private conservative think tanks funded by people like the Koch brothers, people who literally have begun to endow chairs and departments at major universities to staff them with, and support people who view public education through the same anti-government privatization-mindset as Chris Christie does.

Remember Koch-puppet Gov Scott Walker (who didn't graduate from college...) cutting hundreds of millions of dollars from the University of Wisconsin?

These think tanks have begun the process of placing like-minded "academics" on local school boards throughout the country, in fact the Camden superintendent is one such person; Christie's heavy involvement in the funding of new waterfront development in Camden is no coincidence.

So I hear your concern Aleksandr, and your children have a right to reap the rewards of the taxes you pay, but Christie is self-serving to his own political ambitions and willing to do what he can to allow New Jersey to function as some kind of "conservative socio-economic laboratory" where kooky ideologically-driven right-wing policies are proposed or enacted.

Kansas Gov Sam Brownback
Just take a look at what Republican Governor Sam Brownback has done to the state of Kansas (including it's once highly-regarded public schools) and the absolute disaster it's been for the state.

Christie is clever, and he knows he can use the lingering anger over the 1985 Abbott court decision as a wedge issue to garner support for a plan that would drastically slash state public school funding for urban schools in districts already facing a host of challenges, and magically increase state funding for wealthier districts - not in the interest of education.

But as a transparent Trojan Horse to gift the wealthiest districts in New Jersey with a property tax cut. Christie's proposal serves his own political ambitions, not the interests of public education in New Jersey.

And it reeks of coded racism.

The irony here is thick enough to cut with a knife, conservative think tanks and politicians have slowly and steadily reduced the federal share of public school funding, while allowing a district-funded formula to take root, creating even more inequities based on class and race in the educational system of the greatest nation in the world.

And now a guy like Christie points to those underperforming schools in cities that have seen their tax bases decimated by the disappearance of manufacturing jobs and urban blight, and says, "these schools are getting too much state funding, it's time to strip all these Abbott schools of at least 50% of their state funding, and give it to schools in wealthier districts."

And he calls it a "Fairness Formula"?

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