I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Thursday, February 10, 2011

A Rare Occurrence On This Blog

I'm going to take issue with Bruce Baker on a small point from an invaluable piece:
The model underlying local school budgets is that local voter/citizen/parent/homeowners (not entirely overlapping) desire a certain level or quality of schooling, usually in tangible terms like class sizes or specific programs they wish to see in their schools. That is, the local voter may not be able to “guess” the per pupil expenditure of their district (nor is it particularly relevant if they can) and evaluate whether it’s enough, too much or too little, but the local voter can evaluate whether that per pupil dollar buys the programs and services – and class sizes that voter wants to see in his/her local school district and whether they are willing to add another dollar to that mix.
When the state cuts aid to local school districts the usual first local response is to figure out how to raise at least an equal sum of funding – plus additional funding to accommodate increased costs – so as to maintain the desired schooling (class sizes, programs, etc.). Few local voters seem to really want to cut back service quality. Depending on the state (or type of district within the state), district officials put together a budget requiring a specific amount of revenue – which in turn dictates the property tax rate required to raise that revenue – given the state aid allotted – and then the budget is approved by referendum – or other adoption (or back-up mediation) process.
That's the "model," but I think it has very little to do with reality, because school budget votes have stopped being about school budgets.

Instead, they are proxies for general dissatisfaction with government in general. Don't like your mayor? Vote down your school budget! Think property taxes, gas taxes, income taxes - whatever taxes - are too high? Vote down your school budget! Think Obama wasn't born in Hawaii? Vote down your school budget!

In the last NJ election, Chris Christie made school budgets a referendum on public worker unionization, and voters rejected school budgets in record numbers. Many convinced themselves that the schools would be fine; there's so much waste in our classrooms, voting down budgets didn't matter. Besides, everyone knows all school boards are in the pockets of the NJEA (I have yet to hear an explanation of why that would be).

So, no - I don't think school budget votes are at all about school budgets. And, in fairness, Bruce never really said otherwise. So I guess I'm calling him out on something he never said...

This blog sucks. I need a drink...


schoolfinance101 said...

This is a very good point that I conveniently bypassed in this particular post. I did write about it earlier when I addressed school budget votes more generally and how they fluctuate with general satisfaction/dissatisfaction.

That said, while votes are sensitive to many things, as you point out, they are still highly sensitive to wealth/capacity and general tastes for public education. Even with all of the bashing last spring, wealthy town budgets passed at a much higher rate.

The reality is that the quality of education received by a child in town A vs. town B really shouldn't be subject to the whims of local voters. It's a state constitutional obligation.

Duke said...

True dat. I believe that school budget voting is probably the worst feature of NJ's education financing system - and that's really saying something.

Sorry to be so silly in the post: maybe it's a way to deal with the guilt I feel of stealing so much material from you.

If any of you are not reading Bruce's blog religiously, shame on you. He is the foremost authority on the financing of schools, and - unlike many other scholars - he takes time away from his academic work to write additional pieces in a style accessible to amateurs like me.

Bruce, we're lucky to have you.