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

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The Illogic and Cruelty of Christie's "Fairness Formula"

I'm working on an analysis of the "Fairness Formula" -- Chris Christie's regressive school funding scheme -- and will have it ready shortly. Until then, read my piece at NJ Spotlight on this awful plan.

And, for now, let me add this:

Christie's plan is not only divisive, destructive and, yes, racist -- it is also wholly illogical, for at least two reasons:

1) The plan will inevitably drain money from Christie's beloved charter schools, which rely on "pass-through" funding from the less-affluent local districts Christie is planning to screw over.

NJ charter schools get their funds from local districts, which pass on the state aid and local tax revenue they collect based on the number of students a charter enrolls, and whether those students are at-risk (qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, a proxy measure of economic disadvantage), are Limited English Proficient, or have a special-education need.

You'll often hear the NJ charter industry complain they don't get as much money per pupil as the public district schools. While it's true the law says they get 90 percent of the budgeted amount per pupil compared to the districts*, and while adjustment aid plays a role in some districts, the main reason for the disparity is that charters, on average, enroll fewer at-risk, LEP, and special education students compared to their host districts. The state's law says districts -- and charters -- get more money for these students, a policy based on reams of research. If you don't enroll them, you don't get the funds. It's that simple.

These charters are disproportionately concentrated in the districts that will suffer most under the "Fairness Formula": the "A" and "B" districts as designated by the state's District Factor Group (DFG) classification system. Which means that even though they enroll fewer at-risk students proportionally compared to their hosts, they still enroll many more than the 'burbs.

And that means the charters will also suffer under the "Fairness Formula," even with their different student populations -- if Christie really means what he says:
If we were to take the amount of aid we send directly to the school districts today (in excess of $9.1 billion) and send it equally to every K-12 student in New Jersey, each student would receive $6,599 from the State of New Jersey and its taxpayers.  Every child has potential.  Every child has goals.  Every child has dreams.  No child’s dreams are less worthy than any others.  No child deserves less funding from the state’s taxpayers.  That goal must be reached, especially after watching the last 30 years of failed governmental engineering which has failed families in the 31 SDA districts and taxpayers all across New Jersey.
OK -- then that means the charter students only get $6,599 each, right?
NJS: Would this hurt charter schools in these districts as well?
C: I’m open to talking to charters about a “pay for success” model. If you kept the charter law as it is now, you would have to go to a new way of funding charters. It couldn’t be tied -- and it shouldn’t be tied -- to funding a percentage of a district’s funding … It would have to change.
We would have to go back to a way of funding charter schools that is not tied to what a district gets. [emphasis mine]
Sorry, but it is impossible to reconcile these two statements. You can't claim the moral high ground in demanding that all children should get the same funding, then turn around and in the same breath add: "But not these children."

Increased per pupil charter funding either has to come either from local property taxes or from state aid. In either case, Christie would be drawing funds from one group of children to pay more to another. He's trying to have it both ways. No one should let him get away with this.

2) The plan will inevitably raise taxes on districts with low property values, in contradiction to Christie's stated preferences:
Governor Christie: No child in this state is worth more state aid than another. No family in this state should have to disproportionately pay- you’ve got a bigger house, you’re going to pay more in property taxes, you’ve got more land, you’re going to pay more in property taxes- that’s not what I’m talking about. We’re talking about 52% of your property taxes going to schools in 546 districts and 26% of your property taxes going to schools in 31 districts. We’re talking about 546 districts having to divide $88 billion over the last thirty years and 31 districts diving $97 billion. Where did the money go? And what did you get in return for it? But an even more important question than what did you get in return for it- what did those children and their families get in return for it? Underachieving schools that do not prepare them for the jobs of the future or the careers and college life of the future. We are paying a king’s ransom in those 546 districts but in most of them, we are preparing our students for the future. We now should share with each other the money that our state taxes. It can be fixed. We don’t have to rely upon the courts to do it. [emphasis mine]
As I will show in a bit, New Jersey's most underprivileged students have, in fact, made substantial gains during the period of school funding reform. But look at the bolded part of the statement: Christie agrees that property-wealthy school districts should pay more in taxes.

I can't stress this enough: even the most conservative education pundits agree that it's unfair to force property-poor districts to raise their tax rates relative to property-rich districts. In a recent piece at the very reformy The 74, two of the nation's biggest conservative critics of public school spending concede this basic point:
Even some conservatives say the new plan, an effort by Christie to lower property taxes, goes too far. Mike Petrilli, of the right-of-center Fordham Institute, told The 74 in an email, "Governor Christie may be right that property taxes are out of control, as is government spending in some municipalities. But taking it out on kids from poor families is like punishing a gambling addict by taking away his kids' lunch money.”
Christie’s argument that every student should get the exact same state resources may seem like common sense, but in fact it would strongly favor students from wealthier, mostly white communities. More affluent areas are better able to raise money for schools because their high income and property values creates a much larger local tax base. Equal state funding on top of unequal local funding leads to inequity overall. 
Virtually every state in the union recognizes that state funding must compensate for low property tax bases when local property taxes are a significant proportion of total funding,” said Hanushek. “Particularly given the large number and highly variable districts in [New Jersey], not recognizing differences in tax bases would introduce some very destabilizing impacts across districts.” [emphasis mine]
I don't much care for the undertone of Petrilli's metaphor (equating urban districts to gambling addicts is a form of dog-whistling, intentional or not). But he and Hanushek are correct in pointing out that when you shift more of the burden for funding schools on to regressive property taxes, you're going to wind up lowering the effective tax rates in wealthy districts while jacking up rates in property-poor districts.

Again, Christie can't have it both ways: you can't be for flat, let alone progressive, taxation and base a larger portion of school revenues on regressive property taxes while keeping state aid flat.

As I said in my last post, Chris Christie has a nasty habit of slapping together education policies whenever he needs a political boost. The illogic of the "Fairness Formula" is clearly the product of haste. Its self-contradictions betray Christie's complete lack of seriousness.

Maybe I should have thought this through a little more...

ADDING: Paul Mulshine, columnist for the Star-Ledger, has been a primary driver in the media of this cruel and foolish scheme. I can't claim to have read everything Mulshine's written on this (I have a pretty strong stomach, but even I have my limits), but his m.o. appears to be throwing out a-contextual anecdotes about things like pre-K truant officers in Elizabeth to make the case that state funding can be slashed in the cities without bringing harm to students or causing local urban property taxes to skyrocket.

Mulshine's conservative commenters then take these flimsy arguments and use them to justify their own greed. Case in point:

So many school districts, police depts. and municipal agencies in such a close space - all fully funded by John Doe the taxpayer - this is a recipe for disaster - can't wait for my last kid to finish school!!!!  Time to move...
Yes, please, keep your kid in New Jersey's high-performing schools, taking advantage of their rich resourcing and historical (if inconsistent) commitment to funding equity. Then, after they get great educations... get the hell out!

This cynicism is the product of decades where the likes of Paul Mulshine are given space in the press and our national discourse while the left is told to get stuffed. As Atrios has said: the only acceptable arguments in America are between New Republic and Free Republic. Far-right Randians like Mulshine get access to the op-ed pages of New Jersey's largest newspaper, "balanced" by anti-union neo-liberals like Tom Moran, who champion "market-based" reforms while ignoring all the evidence against them.

In this world, education isn't a public good or a universal right; it's a commodity to be purchased, like everything else. Appeals to the collective good are actually considered unpatriotic; the only virtue in Mulshine's America is self-interest. The less enlightened, the better.

Is it too early to start drinking?

* The ostensible reason for the 90 percent is that even the architects of NJ's charter funding law understood that public school districts have responsibilities that charters do not, and it would be unfair to give charters equivalent funds if they aren't doing equivalent jobs. Transportation, for example, is the responsibility of the districts; why should charters be paid for providing busing if they don't actually provide it?

Whether the 90 percent rule adequately addresses this difference is an open question. I think there's good reason to believe it's not an adequate equalizer.

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