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THE RIGHT WAY TO COMPARE NJ EDUCATION FUNDING

ELC Unveils New, More Accurate Method to Compare Funding Among Districts: Funding Per Weighted Pupil

Newark, NJ -- March 29, 2010

How often have you heard New Jersey spends "too much" for public education? Or that our poorest school districts are the "highest spending" in the state? Or that differences in school funding between districts are unnecessary?

What politicians don't tell you when they and others talk about education spending is that they are usually referring to the "revenue per pupil" amount, a simple calculation that divides the total number of district students into the total district budget. In other words, every student is treated the same, as is the entire district budget, regardless of student need or revenue source.

According to Melvin Wyns, former head of the Division of Finance for the NJ Department of Education: "This comparison is highly inappropriate and misleading because it fails to account for the differences in revenues and expenditures generated by the stark variations in concentrations of student poverty and other student needs."

The reality is that many students come to school with special needs that must be addressed to ensure an equal educational opportunity. Many are poor, homeless, non-English speaking, or have a learning disability or physical impairment.

And, as we know too well, New Jersey has among the most intensely economically and racially segregated public school districts in the nation. The concentration of poverty in certain school districts -- mostly urban, rural and their environs -- generates additional educational need. Many urban districts have student poverty rates over 80%, while the wealthiest districts in the suburbs have an average poverty rate of 4%.

The good news is that these additional student and school needs are recognized in the School Funding Reform Act (SFRA), the new funding formula enacted in January 2008. The SFRA provides state aid to support the core curriculum program for every student regardless of need -- this is called the "base cost." But the formula also delivers extra funding for poor (at-risk) students, limited-English proficient (LEP) students, and students with disabilities, regardless of where those students live. In addition, the SFRA provides extra funding based on student poverty in districts with very high (over 40%) concentrations of poor students and provides more funding to middle and high school students.

These extra funds are calculated as a percentage of the base cost, called a "weight." The SFRA applies these weights to students with special needs: poor or at-risk (adding funding equal to .47 to .57 of the base cost, depending on a district's overall poverty level); LEP (.25); students both at-risk and LEP (.125); and grade level (.04 for middle, .17 for high school). Each district also gets additional aid to compensate for special education costs.

Under the SFRA, every district has a "weighted student enrollment," where students are counted for purposes of generating state and local revenue using the base cost plus the weights reflecting unique student needs.

A Better Method to Compare School District Funding: Per Weighted Pupil (FWP)

Using each district's weighted student enrollment under the SFRA, ELC has developed a new, more accurate measure for school spending, called "funding per weighted pupil" or FWP. This measure allows us to fairly compare funding among districts by accounting for the degree to which districts require extra resources to educate students with special needs. For 2009-10, we calculated the FWP for every district and for relevant district groupings: by district factor group (DFG), High Needs, Abbott and the state average. We also include the most salient data elements that go into calculating the district's FWP: total enrollment, enrollments for at-risk and LEP, weighted enrollment, and state and local funding .

Here's our summary of how New Jersey's districts should be compared:

Our Findings

Here are some of the major, even surprising, findings using the FWP measure:

  • New Jersey spends, on average, $10,725 per weighted pupil.
  • The wealthier suburban districts -- those in District Factor Groups I & J -- comprise the highest spending group in the state at $11,643 per weighted pupil.
  • The poorest districts -- those in District Factor Groups A & B -- spend just below the state average, or $10,317 per weighted pupil.
  • The 89 districts classified by the NJ Department of Education as "high needs" spend $10,325 per weighted pupil. A high needs district has a student poverty rate of 40% or more, and is not meeting academic performance benchmarks established by NJDOE.
  • The 31 very poor urban districts -- or "Abbott" districts -- spend $10,539 per weighted pupil.
  • New Jersey has a high degree of "equity" in its school finance system, with small gaps between the poor and wealthiest districts. Most states do not spend enough on public education and have large funding gaps among districts, with low poverty districts far outspending higher poverty districts.

The Need: Sustain and Improve School Funding Fairness

"School funding in New Jersey is remarkably fair, unlike most other states," said David G. Sciarra, ELC Executive Director. "Our funding system provides districts with greater need more resources than those with lesser need. Fair school funding is an essential precondition to ensuring equal educational opportunities for all of our students."

Mr. Sciarra also noted the FWP measure is designed to give the public and lawmakers a much more accurate method to compare spending among districts.

"So much of the talk about school funding is overheated rhetoric and wild claims about out-of-control spending, without any consideration of what resources our students need, especially those in high poverty schools," Mr. Sciarra said. "It is our hope that the FWP will lead to a more informed, deliberate dialogue about this critical issue."

It is also imperative that Governor Christopher Christie and the Legislature work to sustain and increase fair school funding, even in a tough fiscal climate. This means, at a minimum, following and fully funding the SFRA formula in the FY11 State budget. This critical issue was underscored by NJ Supreme Court Justice Jaynee LaVecchia, in her May 2009 ruling on the SFRA formula. Justice LaVecchia made clear that the Court expects the Legislature and Governor to fully fund the formula so as not to allow the "deplorable" condition of funding inequality "to recur in our school districts."

To find your district's FWP, go to the county in which your district is located or, if applicable, in "High Needs" and Abbott district groupings.

High Needs Districts

Abbott Districts

Atlantic

Bergen

Burlington

Camden

Cape May

Cumberland

Essex

Gloucester

Hudson

Hunterdon

Mercer

Middlesex

Monmouth

Morris

Ocean

Passaic

Salem

Somerset

Sussex

Union

Warren

 

Education Law Center Press Contact:
Sharon Krengel
Policy & Outreach Coordinator
email: skrengel@edlawcenter.org
voice: 973 624-1815 x24