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

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Correcting the Hacks on NJ Taxes

Nothing makes me crazier than hacky discussions of tax and fiscal policy. And if you want the hackiest hacking about New Jersey's taxes, there's only one place to go: the Star-Ledger's opinion pages, where you'll find conservative Mike DuHaime and "liberal" (snort) Julie Roginsky hacking out the hackiest fiscal hacking imaginable:

Mike: Trenton Democrats will never let a good crisis go to waste. They are using COVID to raise income taxes, raise business taxes, raise taxes on healthcare and borrow billions. I am surprised Sweeney and Coughlin are supporting an income tax increase. The top 1% of earners in New Jersey are paying 40% of New Jersey’s income taxes. The top 10% pay 70% of the taxes. Wealthy people are leaving New Jersey, and as they leave, it is the middle class who keep getting more and more of the tax burden.

Julie: This deal fell into place because Speaker Coughlin was committed to provide real relief to working middle-class families and was finally able to spearhead an agreement that does just that by providing families with children with the money to pay for back-to-school expenses and other bills next year.

Mike: This is less than one-half of 1% of a tax credit for the average New Jersey household. Taxpayers deserve structural reforms that lower the cost of government and lower our heavy tax burden.

Julie: I agree, Mike. But in all the years a Republican governor was at the helm, he never lowered the income tax rate for the middle class. This is the first real tax break middle class workers are getting in a generation.
Some debate: the Democrat agrees that New Jersey needs "...structural reforms that lower the cost of government and lower our heavy tax burden." The assumption by both, of course, is informed by received wisdom in Trenton: New Jersey is a heavily taxed state with out of control spending.

You'll also note Roginsky doesn't push back on DuHaime's claim that the state's top earners are paying an inordinately high share of the taxes. What a real debater would have noted is that simply focusing on income taxes is wrong when the state raises revenues through a mix of taxes, including gas, sales, transfer, corporate, and so on. Further, state taxes should be considered in combination with local taxes, as various states divide up responsibilities for providing services differently.

Since DuHaim is implying that New Jersey residents are leaving the state due to high taxes and high spending, let's take a moment to cut through the hackery and look at some basic facts.

1) New Jersey collects higher taxes than the US average, but is not a huge outlier in tax collections. We're number 8 in state and local taxes as a percentage of personal income, according to federal data collected from the Tax Policy Center


But remember that taxes are not the only sources of revenue for a state; across the nation, taxes only accounted for about one-half of all general state revenue in 2017.

2) When calculating own source state and local revenue as a percentage of personal income, New Jersey is below the national average. We're ranked number 31, well below the national average. 


3) New Jersey's state and local governments spend less of its citizens' personal income than most other states. On average state and local governments in the U.S. spend 18.3 percent of personal income on direct general expenditures; New Jersey, in contrast, spends 16.0 percent.


4) New Jersey is better than most of its neighboring states, and the U.S. as a whole, in tax progressiveness; however, the top 1 percent in the state still pay less in overall state and local taxes, as a percentage of income, than the middle class. In many states, the bottom 20 percent pay more of their income in state and local taxes than the top 1 percent. Thankfully, that isn't true in New Jersey; however, the top 1 percent still pay less overall than the middle 20 percent.


5) Tax flight of the wealthy from New Jersey is a myth that has been debunked for years. Let's have Sheila Reynertson of NJPP explain it:


As NJPP points out here, the number of wealthy taxpayers in the state has been growing, despite all the talk of this being a high-tax state.


To recap:
  • New Jersey isn't an inordinately high-tax state.
  • New Jersey is a relatively low spending state.
  • New Jersey's wealthiest residents pay less in state and local taxes than its least affluent residents.
  • The number of wealthy taxpayers has been steadily growing in New Jersey for years.

So please don't listen to the political hacks when they tell you we desperately need massive spending cuts. What we need is smart, targeted revenue growth that asks the wealthiest residents to pay their fair share. The millionaire's tax is a meaningful step in the right direction.

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Racial and Class Bias In New Jersey's School Reopening Plans

Most New Jersey school districts are starting the 2020-21 school year this week -- although the way they are starting varies quite a bit. This year, some districts are fully remote, while others are offering a limited form of in-person instruction known as a "hybrid" model. Many of the districts offering the hybrid are rotating students in cohorts that switch between in-person and remote instruction; this way, students get at least some time in their school buildings.

The Murphy administration initially wanted all districts to offer some form of in-person instruction; however, many pushed back, saying they were not prepared. A large part of the problem is staffing: many districts are having trouble finding replacements for the wave of teachers who retired early or took leaves of absence rather than return during a pandemic. Governor Murphy has since allowed districts to apply to start the year remotely.

NJ Spotlight published a list late last week of which school districts -- including charter schools and private schools approved for special education -- would be implementing which model to start the year. I thought it was worth taking some time to crunch the numbers, even if many plans are, as of this writing, still under review. The list I'm using omits almost 200 districts, including every one in Hudson County. Still, it's instructive to see where we are as of now.

I should note before I start that a hybrid program does not require a student to attend in person. Murphy made clear months ago that if a family wants their student to attend schools fully remotely, they can. A hybrid program, then, is actually the possibility of attending school part-time, if parents so choose.

Let's start by looking at how many students are enrolled in schools implementing different types of plans. I'm omitting students in private schools, but including charter school students.


About one-quarter of students are in schools where the data on their reopening is not yet available. Of the remaining districts and charter schools, only one percent are in fully in-person schools. "Combination" districts are those where some schools are remote and some are in-person or hybrid; only six percent of students are in these schools.

The remainder of students are split nearly in half: part going to fully remote schools, part going to hybrid schools. I'm going to leave out fully in-person and combination schools for clarity's sake in the rest of my charts because the numbers are relatively small. Let's take a look at what types of students are attending what types of schools.


Of all the students who are attending a hybrid program, 62 percent are white. Compare that to remote programs, where only 30 percent of students are white. That percentage is close to the percentage of unknown programs. 


When considering white and Asian students together, the differences are just as pronounced. New Jersey schools using a hybrid plan are more likely to enroll white and Asian students than schools that are fully remote. Here's the data in reverse: enrollment of Black and Hispanic students by plan type.


Hybrid schools have, in the aggregate, a 24 percent enrollment of Black and Hispanic students. In contrast, remote schools have a weighted average student population that is 56 percent Black and Hispanic.

Similar differences are found when comparing schools on the enrollments of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, a proxy measure of student economic disadvantage.


Proportionally, hybrid schools enroll substantially fewer students who are in economic disadvantage compared to fully remote schools. 

Now, as Bruce Baker and I have pointed out before, school districts that enroll larger proportions of Black and Hispanic students are more likely to be underfunded, relative to the target set by the state's funding law, SFRA. These districts should be receiving more money, either through local revenues or state aid; however, their actual revenues are under what they should be to provide what the state says is an "adequate" education.

So how does school funding align with reopening plans?*


School districts going fully remote are more likely to be underfunded compared to districts that offer a hybrid model. About three-quarters of the students attending a school with a hybrid model also attend a school that is funded over its adequacy target. But that's true for only 40 percent of students attending a remote district. And over 10 percent of those students are in a district that is severely underfunded -- more than $5,000 per pupil.

There are several possibilities as to why this is. It could be that more underfunded districts are responding to parents' desires to keep their children home. Perhaps parents feel this way because they don't believe the schools have the resources needed to keep students safe. Or it could be that parents would like a hybrid option, but districts can't make it work because of space restrictions or a lack of resources.

It's also possible this is all a coincidence... but I doubt it. Schools need more funding than they normally would to open safely in a pandemic. What we are likely seeing now is the logical consequence of years of inequitable funding -- even in a state that used to be one of the leaders in school funding reform.

I'm keeping an eye on all this and will update the data as soon as it's available.




* I omitted charter school students from this graph. The issue is tricky: some charter students attend schools in districts different from where they live, so we can't know if their resident district, which sends revenues to their charter, is underfunded or not. If and when we get final numbers, I'll try to dig into the issue further.

Thursday, September 3, 2020

The School Reopening Gamble

In the next week or so, schools districts all over the country will reopen their buildings as their new year begins. During our pre-service training, a teacher colleague of mine described the process as a “grand experiment.”

But he’s wrong; it’s not an experiment. It’s a gamble.

An experiment, by definition, is a controlled, scientific procedure designed to gain knowledge. When a researcher conducts an experiment, they try, as much as possible, to control for outside factors that may affect an outcome. The goal is to see relationships between causes and effects, and better understand how the world works.

A gamble, on the other hand, is a risky action taken with the hopes of getting a favorable result. A gambler isn’t trying to learn anything – all they want is a win.

America’s school reopening plans aren’t experiments; we aren’t trying to learn more about how COVID-19 spreads, or its effects. We are, instead, making a huge bet: we’re hoping that we’ll get the benefits of sending children into school buildings without making the pandemic worse.

The problem, however, is that a good gambler always knows the odds. Before placing a bet, a gambler weighs the risks of losing against the rewards of winning. Las Vegas is full of stories of sad, self-deluded gamblers who never took the time to calculate exactly what they were putting at risk before they rolled the dice.

It appears to this teacher that America, true to form, is acting like those reckless high-rollers: we’re putting all of our chips on schools reopening without ever stopping to calculate the odds. We should, instead, take a moment, before placing our bets, to weigh the rewards and the risks of reopening schools

The rewards are actually more meager than what many policymakers appear to think they will be. At best, reopening buildings means only a partial return to school for many students. While some school districts have gone all in and are opening five days a week for a full day, many are opting for a “hybrid” model, like the latest proposal for New York City.

In this model, students are divided into two, or even three, cohorts that rotate in-person schooling with remote instruction. At most, these students will attend school a dozen times a month; more likely it will be less, thanks to holidays.

Obviously, this does nothing to solve the child care crisis many pundits and politicians have cited as the reason to return to school buildings. And even if schools went back to full-time, in-person instruction, working parents would still need childcare solutions for the other hours when they are at work, because school hours almost never cover a parent’s work hours.

Some proponents of school reopening have argued that schools serve other functions besides education: they screen students for abuse, provide free meals to disadvantaged students, and deliver instruction to students with special needs. Unquestionably, that’s true – but must school buildings be open to provide these services? School districts were working to solve many of these issues last spring, when instruction was completely remote; for example, many districts started providing school meals through delivery or pickup.

Furthermore, states like New Jersey are allowing parents to opt their children out of in-person schooling altogether. So schools are going to have to check on students’ welfare and provide free meals remotely anyway.

The issue of special education is more difficult: some students have needs that are so profound they can’t be served by on-line learning. It is, admittedly, not always easy to determine which students fall into this category -- but it’s not all students. Why not open up the schools, then, just for those students with those needs? Why crowd students whose needs could be met on line into classrooms?

Which brings up what reopening proponents appear to believe is their strongest case for reopening: remote, on-line learning is never as good as in-person learning. As a teacher, I’d usually agree… except these proponents are making the wrong comparison. What we should be asking is whether remote learning now is better than part-time, in-person learning in a pandemic.

When teachers were thrown into on-line learning last spring, they were forced to make up remote-based lesson plans on the spot, with little training or preparation. Things are different now: many teachers (myself included) gained experience and feel more comfortable on a digital platform. Of course, internet access remains a serious problem, one that isn’t going away any time soon. And most teachers would agree that good in-person instruction could never be replaced by remote learning.

But in-person learning in a pandemic is also highly problematic. Forcing young children to wear masks for hours, policing social distancing guidelines, teaching some children in person while others are remote… this is hardly an ideal teaching environment. How much positive social development will children experience in conditions like these? How much real learning is going to get done?

Those are the rewards, such as they are. What about the risks?

We must start by acknowledging that we still have much to learn about COVID-19’s long-term effects. What we do know is troubling: in addition to the risk of death, some patients show a range of serious symptoms months after initial exposure. Children appear to be susceptible to these effects. It is true that the health risks for children appear smaller than those for the adult population; however, there is still substantial risk, especially for children of color.

Further, we know that children are carriers of the coronavirus, and have the potential to be spreaders. Which means that even if they do not suffer severe symptoms after exposure, their families and their teachers may.

Some have suggested the fears of American children spreading COVID-19 are overblown, as other countries have managed to open schools without seeing large outbreaks. I’d first point out that many of these other countries’ students spend less time in school than American children, which may decrease the chances of transmission.

In addition, American schools are not like those in other countries. Our chronic underinvestment in school facilities has left us with many schools that are crowded and have inadequate HVAC systems. One-fifth of our schools have no nursing care; another one-fifth only have part-time nurses. Neither of these issues are being addressed, as Washington has not allocated any additional funds to make schools safer or cleaner during the pandemic.

And again: many of the children who return to school buildings will do so only for a few days a week. If they spend the other days in childcare, they may be exposed to two different sets of peers and two different sets of adults overseeing them. The current plans for schooling are therefore likely increasing the number of possible vectors for transmission.

So that’s the gamble. If we win the bet, the payoff is, at best, a highly stunted in-school experience -- in many cases for only a few days a week -- with, perhaps, marginally better delivery of non-academic services. But if we lose, we’ll expose many more children and educational staff to the virus, with immediate and devastating consequences for many, and potentially severe repercussions in the future.

I know children need to get back to school as soon as possible. I know that, for many, school is the one safe place in their lives. I know this generation will suffer harm the longer they are out of school. I know parents have to get back to work -- and I know they really need a break.

But we have to be honest with ourselves: when we reopen schools, we are gambling with lives. Is it really worth it?