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

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Once Again, @GovChristie Shamelessly Twists Education Spending Facts

Governor Chris Christie's brazen disregard for facts in today's Star-Ledger is so utterly shameless that I have to respond immediately.

We've seen some truly awful arguments over the past few years from governors across the nation who want to slash state aid to the most disadvantaged school districts. But in the last few weeks, Chris Christie's defense of his "Fairness Formula" has reached new depths of dishonesty. Even the most conservative critics of school funding reform have balked at this plan.

And yet Christie plows ahead, making statements so outrageous it's stunning a public official would try to get away with them:
The Star-Ledger complains that the SDA [Schools Development Authority, the former Abbott] districts don't have the money in their property tax base to fund their schools. But let's look at the numbers. The average New Jersey town spends 52 percent of its property taxes on schools; the SDA districts just 26 percent. If the state blindly pays a disproportionate share of operating those schools, then why should SDA property tax payers feel any obligation to pay more? Yet, there is no mention from The Star-Ledger's editorial page about the failure to fairly fund these SDA schools with local property tax dollars. [emphasis mine]
This is transparently idiotic. While some of the SDA districts have gentrified since the original Abbott lawsuits, they generally are the least-affluent districts in the state. Which means -- as Ajay Srikanth and I pointed out in our report on the "Fairness Formula" -- that they don't have the capacity to generate the revenues they need to support their schools solely with local property taxes.

From our report (click to enlarge). DFG is "District Factor Group," a way of classifying districts by socio-economic status. "A" districts have the lowest SES and, naturally, have both the lowest property values per student and lowest taxable income per student.

The reason the state gives aid to these districts is simple: if they tried to raise the same amount of revenue as a property-wealthy "J" district, they'd have much higher property tax rates. Of course, since they get aid for schools, those districts can then put a higher percentage of their local revenues into other local services like police and fire -- duh.

Everybody who knows anything about taxes understands this. Everybody who is willing to be honest can figure this out. And everybody who follows this stuff knows that even with state aid supplied by a progressive income tax, overall state and local taxes are still regressive, as this report from the Institute for Taxation and Economic Policy shows.

Here are the lowest quintile taxpayers paying a higher tax rate than the top 1 percent! And yet Christie has the gall to say this:
It is often said that budgets are evidence of your priorities. In the SDA districts they speak loudly: Education is half as important as it is to the rest of the state (if someone else is willing to pay), and big local government is nearly twice as important as is it to the rest of New Jersey. Those are the numbers and they are beyond dispute.
What an outrageous assertion. Chris Christie is essentially blaming the poor for being poor, even though they pay higher overall rates in state and local taxes. Then he turns around and questions these communities' commitment to their children. It's sick...

But it gets even worse:
Liberals like the editorial board of The Star-Ledger continue to believe — 30 years of evidence to the contrary notwithstanding — that pouring money into a demonstrably failed system is an essential element to any salvation for our failed urban education system. They cite Newark charter schools' success sending Newark children to college. Yet they fail to explain how they do it at one-half to two-thirds the cost of the failed traditional public schools without the handcuffs put on them by the Democratic Legislature they endorse or the failed public educators they quote such as Newark Mayor Ras Baraka. Layoffs based on seniority rather than merit. A strangling tenure system that requires us to pay awful teachers in the SDA districts not to teach. And those are just two examples of the madness. [emphasis mine]
First of all, if you read our report, you'll find the notion that these districts have "failed" even though we've "poured money" into them to be completely refuted by the facts. To cite just one piece of evidence, here the renowned psychometrician Howard Wainer:
"New Jersey's black students performed as well in 2011 as New Jersey's white students did in 1992. Given the consequential differences in wealth between these two groups, which has always been inextricably connected with student performance, reaching this mark is an accomplishment worthy of applause, not criticism."
There's much more, but Christie, of course, couldn't care less.

Next, as I have pointed out repeatedly, even if you grant the many, many limitations on the studies showing the "success" of some of Newark's charters, it is quite clear even the "best performers" do not come close to matching the student outcomes of affluent suburban schools.

But let's set that aside and address the main point here: do, in fact, Newark's charters have budgets "at one-half to two-thirds the cost" of the Newark Public Schools? It's actually easy to check, using the state's own data from the Taxpayers Guide To Education Spending. Here's a comparison between NPS and the Newark charter sector.

In the aggregate, total spending per pupil in NPS was $22,013; for the charters, it was $18,692.* That means the charters are spending 85 percent of the total NPS is spending; Christie's "one-half to two-thirds" isn't even close!

But hold on! This is a completely invalid comparison. Don't take my word for it; NJDOE says the figure includes things like transportation costs for nonpublic and charter students. The truth is that public districts pick up the costs for things charters don't spend on, like out-of-district placements for students with profound special education needs, private school books, capital outlays for facilities used by the community outside of school, and so on.

The better comparison -- and again, NJDOE itself says this -- is Budgetary Cost Per Pupil. Newark spends $17,041 per pupil; the charters spend $15,336, which comes to 90 percent of NPS's costs. Chris Christie's assertion that Newark charters spend "one-half to two-thirds" what the public district schools spend is contradicted by his own government's data!

Hang on, it gets even worse. Yes, NPS spends more in the classroom, largely because their staff has more experience and, therefore, higher salaries. We know experience is correlated with teacher effectiveness, but we'll put that aside and instead note this:

Newark's charter schools spend far less on student services and far more on administration than the Newark district schools. Students services, as defined by NJDOE, include the following:
This indicator includes expenditures considered student support services under the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) definition - services supplemental to the teaching process that are designed to assess and improve students' well-being.  It also includes expenditures for activities associated with assisting the instructional staff with the content and process of providing learning experiences. Attendance, social work, health and guidance services, educational media/school library services and child study team services are student support services under the NCES definition. This area also includes the costs associated with physical and mental health services that are not direct instruction, but are nevertheless provided to students, such as supervision of health services, health appraisal (including screening for vision, communicable diseases, and hearing deficiencies), screening for psychiatric services, periodic health examinations, emergency injury and illness care, dental services, nursing services, and communications with parents and medical officials. The expenditures of the guidance office includes counseling, record maintenance, and placement services.  The costs for the child study team include salaries and benefits for members related to the development and evaluation of student individualized education programs (IEPs).  Services provided as a result of IEPs are considered instructional costs and are included in the appropriate classroom instruction indicators. The school library services include books repairs, audiovisual services, educational television services, and computer assisted instruction services. The actual provision of computer assisted instruction is considered classroom instruction. [emphasis mine]
Now, many of these services would benefit any student -- but they are most critical for those students with a special need. Guess what?

Newark's public schools serve many more children with a special education need than the charter schools. As I've shown before, the classified students who are enrolled in the charters tend to have lower-cost disabilities: things like speech and specific learning disabilities (SLD), as opposed to autism or traumatic brain injury or emotional disturbances or physical disabilities.

So it's only natural that the district would have a greater cost load than the charters. You know who agrees with me? Chris Christie!
Of course, we will make sure that we have the aid for special needs students so that they may reach their potential too.  They are the exception though; the overwhelming majority of students deserve the Fairness Formula and we intend to pursue it for them. [emphasis mine]
It's hard to imagine any public official being as shameless self-contradictory as Christie is here.

As to administrative costs: it is clear that charters can't match their host districts on efficiency. There are also many incentives to jack up out-of-classroom costs built into the charter system. The bottom line: if you want to save money, having redundant systems of school governance is a bad idea.

Let's look at Newark's charter vs. NPS spending another way:

Again: comparing total spending is completely invalid -- but even if we did, the charters only spend about 15 percent less than NPS. The more accurate comparison is about 10 percent less, but that doesn't take into account that NPS has a greater proportion of special needs students (and at-risk and Limited English Proficient students as well). Much of the difference between the charter and NPS can be explained by the district's much higher spending on critical support services. Even then, the charters spend far more on administration, including administrative salaries.

All of the facts stand against Chris Christie and his illogical, cruel, and, yes, racist plan to gut the budgets of the schools that serve this state's neediest children.

There's no point in anyone treating this plan seriously; it's built on nothing but distortions, ideology, and lies. Chris Christie has now shown himself to be wholly irrelevant to any meaningful discussion about New Jersey schools or fiscal policies. Sadly, he will still occupy a place of prominence, but all serious stakeholders should immediately understand he has nothing constructive to contribute to the state's policy debates.

Irrelevant then; irrelevant now.

ADDING: I've been called out in the past for using the word "racist" too casually. I don't use it without pause... but read this again:
It is often said that budgets are evidence of your priorities. In the SDA districts they speak loudly: Education is half as important as it is to the rest of the state (if someone else is willing to pay), and big local government is nearly twice as important as is it to the rest of New Jersey. Those are the numbers and they are beyond dispute.
That is an incredible statement for a governor to make. I don't know if Christie added the "communities must make a choice" subheading, but it's a fair reading of what he is saying here: the SDA districts are "choosing" to shortchange their kids and instead lard their towns and cities with patronage jobs. And he's not even hiding behind a qualifier like "the governments in these communities" -- he talking about the communities themselves.

How can anyone not call that racist? How can anyone claim this is anything less than the worst form of divisiveness?

I refuse to play verbal games on this. It's well past time we started calling things what they are.

* Weighted per pupil average.


gadfly1974 said...

Thank you.

It's sad when the truth of rhetoric no longer has any bearing on its effectiveness.

Ajay Srikanth said...

Ha I was tempted to persuade you to add the word "racist" to the brief. And as Dana Goldstein pointed out, allowing additional funding for Special Education (which affects white students and suburbs) and not for ELLs or Free/Reduced lunch students (doesn't affect white students and suburbs) so much is CLEARLY racist.

StateAidGuy said...

Unfortunately Christie didn't attempt to compare Abbotts with poor non-Abbotts. Had he done so his argument about the ineffectiveness of Abbott spending would be harder to dismiss.