PORTRAIT OF AN UNDERFUNDED NJ SCHOOL DISTRICT: ELIZABETH
June 17, 2015
The progress and performance of the Elizabeth Public Schools have made them a national model of a successful high poverty district. These hard-won gains for Elizabeth students are now in jeopardy, however, as the district faces painful budget cuts from Governor Chris Christie’s continuing refusal to provide the funding required by New Jersey’s weighted student formula – the School Funding Reform Act (SFRA).
Elizabeth is a large, urban school district serving about 23,000 students. The student body is 90% black or Hispanic; 82% of students qualify for free or reduced price lunch, and 17% have limited English proficiency. The district has worked diligently over the last decade to overcome the challenge of serving students from overwhelmingly disadvantaged backgrounds and has received accolades for its outstanding achievements. Two elementary schools received the U.S. Department of Education’s coveted Blue Ribbon Award, and Elizabeth High School was named New Jersey’s most challenging high school by the Washington Post for providing broad student access to college-level courses.
Elizabeth has used many creative strategies to improve student achievement. The best known is the district’s ground-breaking extended learning time (ELT) initiative. The high school day was extended in September 2006, with elementary schools phased into the extended day program from January 2006 through September 2011, when Elizabeth became one of the few districts in the nation to operate an extended day in all its schools.
ELT and other innovative programs are credited with Elizabeth’s success in boosting achievement. Elizabeth students outperform nearly all other districts with similar student poverty rates on both elementary and high school state assessments. Over the past five years, students have made dramatic improvements: proficiency rates on HSPA, the 11th grade graduation test, increased by 26 points in math and 27 points in Language Arts.
Under the Christie Administration, state aid to the district has been virtually flat for the last five years, and Elizabeth now faces a budget crisis. At the same time the district has had almost no increase in revenue, the student population has been growing dramatically. Elizabeth is now educating 3,000 more K-12 students than five years ago and has an increasing percentage of English language learners. The district’s adequacy budget under the SFRA formula, which determines the actual costs of educating district students based on their need, has increased by 50% since 2008-09.
Governor Christie’s proposed State Budget will leave Elizabeth $67 million below the level of state funding required under the SFRA formula. In May, the Elizabeth Board of Education made the courageous and difficult decision to increase local revenue by $7.5 million, the full amount allowed under New Jersey’s property tax cap.
While Elizabeth has stepped up to support the schools, the Christie Administration’s failure to provide the State’s share will force the district to make additional cuts to essential programs and services in order to balance its budget. To keep pace with enrollment growth, the district must find over $3 million to hire 36 more teachers. As a result of fixed cost increases, the district is planning to eliminate ELT for all elementary students, ending the initiative four years after implementation. The district is unable to restore academic afterschool and summer school, programs cut in the last few years that made a real difference in boosting performance. Even as New Jersey is raising academic standards with the Common Core and new PARCC exams, Elizabeth simply lacks the resources to maintain the supports that are essential to help struggling students get back on track and stay on track to graduation.
“It is painful to see Elizabeth, a national model of success, cutting the very programs that have contributed to that success, especially as policymakers at all levels — local, state and federal – are championing these interventions as the way forward to close achievement gaps and improve outcomes for low-income students,” said Education Law Center Executive Director David Sciarra. “We know what works. It’s time to make sure districts have the resources needed to provide these critical supports so that all students thrive.”
“We will continue to do everything in our power to make sure that our students succeed in school,” said Ana Maria Amin, President of the Elizabeth Board of Education. “But not being able to continue programs we know work well is a hard pill to swallow. The children of Elizabeth deserve better. That’s what the funding formula says, and we hope that’s what our elected representatives think as well.”
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