The annual New Jersey School Report Card was released last week, detailing district-by-district statistics on per-pupil spending, graduation rates and standardized test scores, among other numbers.
But don't bother trying to draw any meaningful conclusions. Acting Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf said the per-pupil spending figures are essentially worthless because they do not incorporate a host of other non-instructional expenses such as transportation and food services that would push those numbers much higher. Per-pupil calculations are, in other words, a more complex melding of elements that don't all directly relate to the classroom.
Yet, state officials are pushing hard for more charter schools, which are funded with public money based on a simplistic percentage of those deficient per-pupil numbers.
We'd recommend the state first figure out what it's talking about regarding true per-pupil spending numbers before using the deceptive ones as groundwork in developing reform measures.
That's all well and good, except...
But now we have Cerf acknowledging that the state is effectively flying blind in assessing per-pupil costs. And that creates many problems. Consider, for instance, the report card's finding that the average per-pupil spending increased statewide by 6.5 percent in the 2009-2010 school year, despite aid cuts and spending caps and cries of poverty and despair. Cerf said the problem with those numbers is the failure to include non-instructional expenses. So if the instructional spending increased in this economic climate, does that mean local districts may be effectively responding to the challenge in focusing on reducing the non-instructional spending? And isn't that something Christie should be applauding? We don't know, however, because the per-pupil numbers have such limited value, and we're left with no means of comparison. And besides, such fiscally responsible behavior doesn't fit the Christie narrative that schools across the state are spending frivolously. [emphasis mine]Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong WRONG!!! The problem here is that it doesn't cost the same amount to educate all students!
This is so fundamental and yet so lost on both our politicians and the media that it makes me want to pull what little is left of my hair out. If a district has a kid classified as special education, or a kid in poverty, or a kid who speaks english as a second language, it will have to spend more on that kid to educate her than an "average" kid. ESL and spec ed teachers cost money; poor kids need extra help and services. We all know this.
And if one district has more kids who need that help than another district, OF COURSE its per pupil expenditures are going to be higher. Transportation and food service has next to NOTHING to do with this!
This gets directly to the entire debate about funding charter schools. If a charter "skims the cream" - takes only the kids who are "average" and leaves the rest back in the neighborhood schools - it will ALWAYS have less per-pupil expenses. And the per pupil expense of the neighborhood school will rise with every "average" - meaning "cheap" - kid who leaves.
Further, we know that charters are skimming: Bruce Baker has shown this time and time again.
Look, I'm all for meaningful district-by-district comparisons of spending if it helps to identify best practices, but let's get real: comparisons are meaningless unless you take student characteristics into account. Christie and charter cheerleaders like Derrell Bradford do not want to discuss this, but it's right at the heart of the matter.
The media MUST understand this. It is incredibly frustrating when they show over and over that they cannot grasp this very simple concept.
Bruce is obviously far more versed in this stuff than I am and has made this point over and over again. It's really not that hard to understand. When will our media listen to people like him?