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"REVERSE ROBIN HOOD" FUNDING SCHEME CHALLENGED

SCHOOL FUNDING: THE RIGHT FIX

By Tom Jannarone, Consultant for Urban Affairs to the New Jersey Association of School Administrators and the Urban Schools Superintendents of New Jersey

Senator Joseph M. Kyrillos Jr., in a recent commentary, emphasized that the current school funding formula is "broken and needs to be fixed." While I agree that the formula needs fixing, I would like to address some of the inaccuracies in the senator's commentary.

Sen. Kyrillos has taken a strong stance against funding our state's poorest districts (the Abbott districts) at the level of the wealthiest districts, as well as calling for controls to cut back on administrative costs. Unfortunately, he has overlooked the facts as they pertain to these issues.

The idea that the state's poorest districts can provide a thorough and efficient education when funded only as much as the state average is ridiculous. I agree that most New Jersey districts are often struggling to get by with the current levels of state funding. The urban districts join with their colleagues in both the wealthy and middle-income districts to decry the inadequate support given by the state. The unfortunate result of the current situation is, and will be, reduced educational opportunities for students and skyrocketing property takes in all communities.

I am pleased that Sen. Kyrillos acknowledges the problems faced by urban youngsters. However, his belief that Abbott schools are inefficient or wasteful is astonishing. In my work with the Urban Schools Superintendents, I see that our urban superintendents are deeply committed to the education of our state's children in the most thorough and efficient manner possible. In most cases, these individuals have dedicated their professional lives to improving urban education. In fact, school administrators at all levels across the state deserve medals for their efforts.

Sen. Kyrillos' assertion that New Jersey school districts overspend on administrative costs is simply wrong. According to the United States Department of Education, New Jersey schools spend an average of 8.38 percent of their budgets on administrative costs, placing the state 21st in the nation. More than half of the states spend a higher percentage on administration. In addition, the percentage of administrators has dropped from 8.79 in 1989-1990 to 6.7 in 2002-2003, while student enrollment has increased by 27 percent over the same period, with the number of classroom teachers growing by more than 28 percent. The elimination of all administrative costs would not solve our current funding crisis.

The problem is not that we have too many administrators or that Abbott districts receive too much money, but rather that all New Jersey districts receive less than they should. The nationwide average for state funding is 49.6 percent, but only 37 percent of our local school district funds come from the state, placing New Jersey 45th in the nation in regard to state funding, according to a study performed by the National Education Association. I hasten to add that without the New Jersey Supreme Court mandates for parity aid, supplemental aid, and early childhood aid, New Jersey might have the unenviable position of being last in the nation in broad-based support for schools. And I wonder who would then be blamed.

In difficult times, it is easy to point the finger, but what we need is to look objectively at the issue of school funding. The solution isn't to constitutionally cap funding for education -- our constitution correctly establishes a mandate of providing a "thorough and efficient" system of education. Rather, a system needs to be developed that doesn't chase property owners with more modest incomes from their homes. Instead, the system should not rely so heavily upon local property taxes. It should fund all children -- whether wealthy, middle income, or poor -- at a level of effort greater than near the bottom in regard to support from our state government, when compared to other states.

We are now beginning to see the labors of the past few years bear fruit in our Abbott districts. Programs such as early childhood education and whole school reform take time to provide accurate data for study. New Jersey was recently credited with having one of the best preschool programs nationwide. Fourth-grade test results are steadily rising, and most indicators show that programs put in place only because of Abbott mandates are working.

Let's focus on the real problem of state funding. The lack of broad-based state support so necessary for all our districts and children is the culprit. Let's solve that problem, which coincidentally relieves the over-reliance on local property taxes. We should not be fooled into thinking that a "reverse Robin Hood" approach will be the answer to all our funding woes.