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, February 3, 2013

Michael Doherty: New Jersey's Worst Senator

New Jersey State Senator Michael Doherty is obsessed with the idea that poor children might be getting "too much" money for their schools. Whenever he has a chance, he likes to raise the specter of fraud to make the case that school districts that serve more poor children should get more state aid. He has little idea of the mechanics involved in auditing free/reduced lunch program participation, but that never stops him from whining that poor children in the cities are living the high life while the 'burbs keep getting screwed.

So no one should have been surprised when, once again, he claimed the former Abbott districts are ripping off the rest of the state. This past week, he harped on his theory again during the Senate Education Committee's hearing with Education Commissioner Chris Cerf (my transcription):
DOHERTY: (1:41:35) Commissioner, I would just like to bring to your attention and to the chair and the members of the committee: I represent Hackettstown in Warren County. And according to the census figures, of the most recent census, the median household income in Hoboken is $101,782, median household income. The median household income in Hackettstown, a town I represent, is $65,754. Per capita income in Hoboken is over $69,000. Per capita income in Hackettstown, a town I represent, is $30,471 - less than half per capitia income. 
However, the town I represent, Hackettstown, does not have 3- and 4-year preschool. They receive about $2651 per student, and I know, depending exactly on how you calculate it, it receives about $2600 per student, and Hoboken receives $4925 per student. So, it's not double, but it's pretty close.  
So, (sigh), we need to do some cleaning up. Because we have a situation where towns are living on the status quo and things have changed and I think this is a good example of some of the unequal application of the law and people in... certainly the folks in Hoboken are doing a lot better than the folks in Hackettstown and certainly there's some money in that town and yet they have this status that allows them to have 3- and 4-year preschool. 

I'm not going to dispute Doherty's numbers; instead, I'll show the numbers that actually matter:

You want to talk about "doubling," Senator? Well, Hoboken has nearly double the percentage of children eligible for free lunch that Hackettstown does.

This doesn't contradict the idea that Hoboken may have a higher median and average income than Hackettstown, because it's fairly clear that the range of incomes is much greater in Hoboken. The poor people in Hoboken are much poorer, and the rich people are much, much richer.

Now, it's true that in Hackettstown nearly one in five children is eligible for free lunch. That's a lot, and they should get additional funding. Which is why Doherty should be for the School Funding Reform Act, which distributes money to all districts in New Jersey on the basis of how many children with special needs the district serves.

But that's not Doherty's agenda:
New Jersey must adopt a simple, transparent system for funding our schools. I propose dividing the income tax fund equally for each student, as required by the constitution. That would mean $7,481 for each student, regardless of where the student lives. This proposal would increase school funding for 85 percent of New Jersey’s towns. [emphasis mine]
Let's leave aside the fact that the constitution says no such thing, as the NJ Supreme Court has affirmed. Let's leave aside the fact - and yes, all high-quality research confirms it's a fact - that money matters in affecting student academic outcomes. Let's even leave aside the fact - and yes, it's a fact - that New Jersey's poor and minority students have made enormous strides in the Abbott/SFRA world of better school funding fairness.

Even if Doherty's cockamamie and cruel funding scheme came true, how would that make things any better for the kids and families in Hackettstown?

The Star-Ledger recently wrote an editorial about tax fairness in New Jersey, and included this graph, based on data from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy:

Tea partiers like Doherty put their heads in the sand when they are confronted with this stuff, but it's true: the poor pay a greater share of their income in state and local taxes than the rich.

If Doherty really cared about "fairness" for the people of Hackettstown, this is where he'd start. He'd demand that the very wealthy in Hoboken pay at least what the middle-class and poor in Hackettstown pay. We'd then have enough money to help poor children in both Hackettstown and Hoboken get the educations and support services they need to lift themselves out of poverty (and we'd have the added bonus of a Keynesian economic boost, something we desperately need, but a policy that is thwarted at every step by wing-nuts like Doherty).

But Doherty's agenda isn't well-resourced public schools for all children as a matter of "fairness." He is transparently a Grover Norquist-type small government reactionary. It must kill him that New Jersey's public schools have made great strides in educating the poorest children over the last two decades; that stands opposite to the very core of the man's ideology.

So he plays a game where he tries to pit the suburbs against the cities in an effort that would destroy the public schools in both. He blames Hoboken for Hackettstown's problems, when the real problem for both places is income inequity and regressive taxation. And he has a willing accomplice in Chris Christie, who looks to base his entire reelection strategy around hyping this conflict.

If New Jersey had a contest for Worst Senator, Michael Doherty would be in the final four. And believe me, that's no small feat.


Unknown said...

Perhaps Senator Doherty would like every student to have a gun when they enter the classroom....don't forget that he was one of the wacky TeaPartiers that wanted to arm every teacher in the state after the CT shooting!!

Unknown said...

Amazing what Senator Doherty has to say about education, given that the taxpayers paid for his West Point education. And how did the Senator pay you back for that very expensive education? He spent 4 years on active duty and then got the boot because his egotistical, "I'm a West Point grad and that makes me better than everyone else!" attitude resulted in evaluations that were so bad that he couldn't make Captain! He didn't make the grade in the Army after he got his free West Point education, and he's not making the grade as a NJ Senator, either! I think it's time he pay the taxpayers back for his free education because he certainly didn't pay it off in the 4 years he was on active duty!

StateAidGuy said...

Doherty is right about Hoboken, although for the wrong reasons and he is wrong about Hackettstown being a truly needed district.

It's irrelevant, by itself, what percentage of a district's students are FRL-eligible because a district could have very few students period or the district could have an immense tax base. Hoboken is the PERFECT example of this. Even though 49% of Hoboken's students are FRL-eligible, there are only 2600 public+charter students (total) in Hoboken, a town of 52,000. Moreover, Hoboken's Equalized Valuation is tied with Newark for the fourth highest in NJ and Hoboken’s Aggregate Income is NJ’s third highest (after Millburn and Edison.)

By contrast, Hackettstown has 10,000 people and it has 1,939 students. Its Equalized Valuation is only 1/13th of Hoboken’s.

So, 100% of Hoboken’s students could be Free Lunch eligible and a critic like Doherty would be right that Hoboken is getting far more aid than it needs and deserves. The basic fact is that Hoboken’s student population is tiny and its wealth is enormous. Giving Hoboken $4400 per student for K-12 is sick.

"Even if Doherty's cockamamie and cruel funding scheme came true, how would that make things any better for the kids and families in Hackettstown?"

Umm, Hackettstown only gets $2640 per student. So if Doherty’s Fair Aid Plan became law it would benefit Hackettstown.

Hackettstown is a very poor example of an underaided district for Doherty to use. Bound Brook (also in Doherty’s district) would be a much better example, since it is 73% FRL eligible, 14% ELL, and only gets $4700 per student. Bound Brook, in fact, is NJ’s most underaided district now. If Doherty's plan became law, Bound Brook would benefit.

Despite the benefits for Bound Brook, I agree that Doherty’s aid plan is bad. However, Doherty is 100% right about Hoboken's aid level being completely unfair.