Saturday, October 10, 2015

Chris Cerf Finally Sees The Light! Schools Need Adequate Funding

It's taken years, but it appears that my most stubborn congregant, Chris Cerf, is finally starting to understand that money matters in education. Let me tell the tale of this poor sinner's ascent into grace:

All the way back in 2012, when Cerf was New Jersey's Education Commissioner, a big part of his job was to go around the state and defend Governor Chris Christie's cuts in state aid to schools:
The state’s top education official today defended the Christie administration’s proposed changes to the school funding formula, including a plan to spend less money on poor students.  
Testifying before the Senate Budget Committee in Trenton, acting Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf said adjusting the way public schools get state aid is good for students and will encourage teachers and administrators to boost student achievement. 
"We need to collectively get out of the box that says we can define success in education by how much we spend," Cerf said. "It’s not only how much we spend — the box we’ve been pushed into by the courts — it's about an integrated strategy of policy and funds."  
State Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen) questioned the logic of adjusting the funding before the state can fully fund the formula that was approved in 2008 by the Legislature and the state Supreme Court.  
"Is it prudent to be tinkering with this when we haven’t funded what we already found to be constitutional?" Sarlo asked.  
Cerf said the formula as it stands is "unfair" and "ill serves our children." 
State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), however, called the proposed changes unfair because they will "punish" the same districts, such as Newark, Camden and Trenton, that serve large groups of poor and minority students. [emphasis mine]
This came on the heels of Cerf's 2012-13 Education Funding Report, in which Cerf made this bold and self-righteous assertion (p. 65):
For decades, New Jersey has waged the right battle, but done so with the wrong tools. Closing the achievement gap and ensuring that all students – be they economically advantaged or disadvantaged, urban or suburban, white or black – are prepared for college and career is the single highest calling of any state department of education. And, indeed, the New Jersey Department of Education has reaffirmed that calling in this Education Funding Report. But the Department declines to reaffirm the failed mantra of administrations, legislatures, and courts past that “more money will cure all that ails us.” Part I of this Report debunks that notion. Despite per-pupil spending that has outpaced New Jersey’s wealthiest districts and is among the very highest in the country, many of the former-Abbott districts remain mired in mediocrity, unable to convert dollars into classroom success. 
This should be unsurprising. Pumping more money into our worst-performing districts has provided us with moral cover, persuading us that we have met our obligation to the students in those districts while allowing us to under serve them. More money has permitted past governors and legislatures to avoid the politically difficult reforms – like implementation of an educator evaluation system, tenure reform, and ending the pernicious “last in, first out” policy – so critical to turning around our lowest-performing schools. And more money has likewise allowed the Department of Education to be satisfied with a role as district compliance-monitor rather than district partner, collaborator, and, where necessary, instigator of seismic reform. [emphasis mine]
As Bruce Baker* pointed out in real time, this report was completely insufficient in its methods to back up Cerf's claim that gutting teacher tenure and LIFO was more important than adequately funding schools. The truth, as Baker has documented extensively, is that funding does matter, particularly for schools that serve disadvantaged students.

I've repeatedly tried to explain this to Chris Cerf for years. I know he reads this blog; why, then, couldn't he grasp the simple reality that schools need adequate funds, and New Jersey has not been following its own law regarding state aid to schools since Christie took office? What would it take to make Chris Cerf finally see that money matters? Why did he stubbornly cling to the error of his ways?

Apparently, having to actually run a public school district -- something Cerf has never done before -- has finally opened Cerf's eyes. Now that he's at the helm in Newark, money suddenly seems to matter after all:
However, it was the impact on the budget that the charter schools are having that’s very interesting, according to Cruz. 
“There is a problem here in the budget and it needs to be addressed. It needs to be addressed by the legislature next year in the funding formula, specifically the allocation to charter schools. As you know, I have a belief that I don’t care how a school comes into being as long as it’s a good school, but by flat lining year to year to year the revenues given to a district, that in combination with the charter school funding formula is hitting the district budget disproportionately and there’s a way to fix that with a very simple budget fix, but we can’t just turn the other way,” Cerf said. 
“This is something that left some people scratching their heads,” Cruz said. “The champion of charter schools, the architect of the One Newark plan, which relied heavily on the expansion of charter schools, talking about how charter schools are taking money away from traditional public schools. Cruz spoke today to the union rep and he said that as far as Cerf goes, he’s sort of a light version of Cami Anderson. “Maybe not as abrasive, but certainly continuing the same policies,” Cruz said. [emphasis mine]
Yes, Cerf's self-contradiction on charter schools is certainly surprising. But what's more amazing is Chris Cerf's blatant flip-flop on school funding.

If 2012 Chris Cerf were standing next to 2015 Chris Cerf, he'd probably be rolling his eyes and wagging his finger, chiding himself for wanting to "pump more money into our worst performing districts." He'd be accusing 2015 Cerf of repeating the "failed mantra" that “more money will cure all that ails us."

Fortunately, 2015 Cerf has been attending services here regularly and heeding the preaching of Reverend Jazzman. My posts, Baker's research, and the realties of his new job have made him finally see the light: you can't spend money "wisely" if you don't have it. Cerf has come over to the side of equitable and adequate funding for our schools; he has heard the gospel truth, and it has set him free!


I once was lost, but now I'm found...

* As always: Bruce Baker is my advisor in the PhD program at Rutgers GSE.


  1. Cerf forgot to mention the amount of Newark's deficit equals the extra funding given to charters. Hmmm...

  2. Cerf’s history with state aid is way more complicated than you let on.

    First, writing the “Education Adequacy Report” was a meaningless exercise because it was to recommend changes to a school funding law that hadn’t been fully funded and has no prospect of being fully funded. What is the point of changing the weights for at-risk students or the method of determining attendance when so many districts are hopelessly underaided anyway? If Clifton gets 30% of its uncapped aid anyway it doesn’t matter what the weight is for ELLs since Clifton isn’t being funded for the ELLs it has?

    Second, Cerf’s parallel “Education Funding Report” had a very good idea about reducing Adjustment Aid for districts that were Above Adequacy and redistributing at least some of that to underaided/Below Adequacy districts.
    A proposal to reduce Adjustment Aid and redistribute it to needier places isn’t equivalent to “believing that money doesn’t matter;” it’s a belief that money _does_ matter but it has to be spent where it is the most needed.
    Also, it’s possible for someone to believe that money does matter but the benefits trail off after a certain point. In other words, it’s possible to see a Diminishing Returns effect set in above which additional aid is ineffective. Thus, you can be heartbroken about how badly aided Freehold Boro is but livid about how overaided Asbury Park is. You can be heartbroken about East Newark and Guttenberg but furious about Hoboken and Jersey City.

    It’s also possible to believe, from the time of Peak Abbott in 2006 into the early 2010s that Newark was _not_ in such serious need of more money, especially in comparison with other districts.

    A reasonable person can now evaluate Newark and decide that by now Newark’s budget has become more efficient and now the cuts are to more essential programs.

    Also, people just represent the agency they head. People feel differently when they sit in different chairs.

    But back to Newark….

    Newark’s uncapped aid deficit is over $100 million, but in per pupil terms it is $2600 per student. That’s a very high amount, but it isn’t even in NJ’s top 40.

    If I were the commissioner of education I would not make giving more money to Newark a priority compared to these districts.

    District Aid Deficit
    BOUND BROOK -$9,780
    EAST NEWARK -$8,906
    FAIRVIEW BORO -$8,746
    FREEHOLD BORO -$8,113
    MANVILLE BORO -$6,211
    LODI -$6,179
    ELMWOOD PARK -$5,985
    WOODLYNNE -$5,982
    PROSPECT PARK -$5,896
    LINDENWALD -$5,885
    RIDGEFIELD PARK (Bergen) -$5,706
    DOVER TOWN -$5,484
    DUNELLEN -$5,429
    WHARTON -$5,385
    KEARNY TOWN -$5,282
    NI NELLA -$5,263
    HAMMONTON (B) -$5,200
    BELLEVILLE -$5,162
    CLAYTON (B) -$5,027
    JAMESBURG -$4,752
    RED BANK BORO -$4,665
    CARTERET -$4,591
    BLOOMFIELD -$4,545
    ATLANTIC CITY -$4,526
    NEWFIELD BORO -$4,423
    WALLINGTON BORO (B) -$4,326
    NETCONG BORO -$4,258
    PLAINFIELD CITY (A) -$4,106
    NEWTON TOWN -$4,101
    SOUTH RIVER BORO -$4,069
    PENN'S GROVE -$4,059
    NEW BRUNSWICK (A) -$4,056
    BRIDGETON CITY (A) -$4,033
    ROSELLE BORO -$4,012

  3. Julie B,

    Cerf isn't going to go on the attack about Newark's transfers to charter schools because he _likes_ charter schools.

    To him transferring money to charter schools is just paying for charter school teachers, administrators, facilities, nurses etc. It doesn't matter to him if the schools are district-run or not. He wouldn't call the growth of charter schools "privatization" and if he did use that word he wouldn't mean it as a pejorative.

    I don't know exactly what Cerf thinks of SES-disproportionalities between charters and district schools, but he seems to accept it.

    When a district sends a handful of kids per grade to charters there are no compensating savings and the charter school transfers really hurts, but Newark sends so many kids to charters that there are savings to be had. These savings are usually closing schools and those closings are wrenching, but still, savings do occur.


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