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, March 13, 2021

Lakewood, NJ: Where Public Schools Are Left To Wither, Part II

Here's Part I of this series.

In this series, I'm taking a look at Lakewood, NJ, with an eye toward what might happen if more communities abandon their public schools and, instead, embrace the idea of school "choice." Lakewood, in a state by some accounts with the highest ranked public schools in the nation, is a town where the vast majority of families choose to send their children to private schools.

The Star-Ledger explained what's driving this phenomenon back in 2017:
Lakewood has more than 6,300 students registered in its public schools and another 30,000 mostly Orthodox Jewish students enrolled in the town's 130 private schools. Under state law, towns must fund buses for students attending private schools more than two miles from their houses.

In the upcoming school year, Lakewood expects to spend $27 million on busing alone, more than it spends on classroom instruction, according to the school budget.

Town leaders say Lakewood is severely underfunded by the state, which does not consider the busing of large numbers of private school students when calculating how much state aid the district receives. A permanent source of school funding for busing and special ed would ease many of the town's problems, said Rabbi Aaron Kotler, one of the leaders of the Orthodox Jewish community.

"It would also make Lakewood a place where you wouldn't have people feeling that your children's future is at risk due to a budget problem," Kotler said.
As we'll see throughout this series, the argument that Lakewood is "severely underfunded by the state" is open to debate. For now, let's do what regular readers know always comes next: take a data dive into Lakewood's schools. 

Remember: the data I'm using above, given a very conservative estimate, suggest private schools students outnumber public school students by at least 4-to-1; the Star-Ledger's report suggests the real ratio is even higher. Let's start by looking at the population in the public schools.

Overwhelmingly, Hispanic students make up the population of the Lakewood Public School District -- far more than the rest of Ocean County, and far more than the rest of the state. It's worth noting that, as Bruce Baker and I point out, one of the best predictors of whether a school district in New Jersey is underfunded according to the state's own law is whether that district enrolls an inordinately high number of Hispanic students.

Lakewood's public schools students are also overwhelmingly in economic disadvantage, as measured by eligibility for free or reduced-price lunches. 

Given this population, it's not surprising that Lakewood Public School District's Limited English Proficiency (LEP) rate is very high: over five times the state average.

To recap: the public schools in Lakewood enroll students who are overwhelmingly Hispanic and disadvantaged, with many who do not speak English as their first language. 

Now, we don't have the same data for the private school students. But looking as the religious affiliations of those schools gives us much of the information we need.

The vast majority of private schools students in Lakewood go to Jewish schools. As I said in the previous post, the religious denomination of the private schools students isn't important: what's important is that the majority of the town's families have opted out of sending their children to the public schools. This is, for many in the school "choice" movement, exactly what they'd like to see: a large number of a community's families choosing not to send their children to local public district schools.

There are at least two consequences to the majority of Lakewood's families rejecting public education. First, the student population of the public schools is very different from the private schools. Second, the majority of the town's families do not have a personal interest in the public schools' success. Let me be clear: I'm not saying they want the public schools to fail; rather, whether those schools fail or succeed does not impact them personally.

This has profound effect on the Lakewood Public School District's budget. The local school board is elected by a citizenry that is not invested in the public schools in the same way as is found in most other towns and cities. Whose interests, then, will the district's budgetary decisions serve?

As I've written before, New Jersey must, by law, provide funds for all sorts of supports to private schools attended by local resident children: technology aid, security, nursing, textbooks, handicapped services, and so on. In general, it's a very small amount of the overall K-12 school budget – except in Lakewood. A huge part of the Lakewood school district's budget is spent supporting the needs of students who do not attend its schools.

The Star-Ledger also points out the district spends a lot of money on transporting private school students. The state data doesn't allow us to separate out that cost from the cost of bussing public school kids, but clearly there is an effect: Lakewood's transportation budget is very large.

There's another expense Lakewood incurs far in excess of other New Jersey school districts: private school tuition for special education students. Back to the Star-Ledger:
Lakewood expects to spend nearly $32 million on tuition this year to send special education students -- including hundreds of members of the growing Orthodox Jewish community -- to private and out-of-district schools. The bill is among the highest in the state and one of the reasons the booming Ocean County town is facing a school funding crisis. 
Why do taxpayers pay private school bills?

Under federal law, all children with disabilities are entitled to a "free appropriate public education." So, if a school district does not have the staff, programs or facilities to accommodate a child's specific disability, parents can request that the district pay for a more appropriate private school.

Many parents turn to lawyers and education consultants for help. Their cases often end up before a state Office of Administrative Law judge, who rules where a student should be placed.

In Lakewood, an estimated 361 current and new special education students will be placed in private schools at the district's expense during the upcoming school year, according to the school district's budget. Another 17 students will be sent to other school districts.

Lakewood sends more than a quarter of its special education students to private or out-of-district schools, according to the data.

If you look at the percentage of all students on-roll who attend private schools, the figure is, once again, far in excess of the rest of the state.

Lakewood's private school placement rate is nearly ten times that of the rest of Ocean County. Again, this has a powerful effect on the public school district budget.

Lakewood spends more than twice what the rest of New Jersey's districts spend on tuition to other schools.

So, given the data, what can we surmise about Lakewood?
  • The majority of the population has opted out of sending their children to the public schools.
  • That majority is ethnically separate from the minority that sends their children to the public schools.
  • The budget of the public school allocates inordinately large sums in support of the private school population.
Let's be clear before we continue: these are facts. We can debate the cause, but the data are unambiguous on what is happening right now in Lakewood, NJ's schools.

The question we must address next, however, has greater consequences for the larger conversation on education policy: What happens when a community abandons its public schools? Again, I contend there are at least three consequences:
  1. When a large part of a community abandons its public schools, chaos ensues and accountability dissolves.
  2. Segregation is the inevitable consequence of school privatization.
  3. Educators will be disrespected in a community that does not support its public schools. 
The data clearly support point #2. In the next post, we'll further explore point #1.

ADDING: I'm using 2017-18 data as that is the last year for which we have audited, actual figures for the Lakewood Public School District, as opposed to projected or revised data. Lakewood is not included in the latest NJDOE fiscal dataset (User Friendly Budgets) for 2020-21. 


StateAidGuy said...

There are real governance problems in Lakewood and I think a state takeover is needed, but SFRA and the tax cap don't work for Lakewood for the following reasons.

- A district's Adequacy Budget and hence its Equalization Aid are based on its on-roll enrollment, not students in private schools.

- The state has Extraordinary Aid for sped OOD placement, but it is a partial reimbursement. A district's OOD tuition is also supposed to be funded with various fungible moneys, including Equalization Aid and the local tax levy.

- Lakewood's OOD percentage is huge compared to its public school enrollment, but for a town that probably has 35-37,000 age-eligible kids, 350 kids in OOD placement is at NJ's average.

Hence, SFRA doesn't work for Lakewood. In fact, the district has become slightly _overaided_.

The Tax Cap Problem

- All NJ districts have tax cap adjustments due to enrollment growth, but Lakewood's public school enrollment is slowly shrinking. Hence, it doesn't get a tax cap adjustment, even though the number of students it provides services to has increased.

In 2016-17 Lakewood's tax levy exceeded LFS ($94,823,327 to $92,974,112), but now the LFS is much higher than the Adequacy Budget. ($105,870,754 to $134,643,568)

I believe that a subsidy for private school education is more than justified, but the unique situation of Lakewood requires a three-part solution.

1. greater state oversight.
2. tax cap liberalization
3. additional state aid.

I wrote this piece a few years ago about the state aid problems. Although the piece is dated, I think it explains well why SFRA doesn't work for Lakewood.


Duke said...

I will argue later in this series that the LFS is high for Lakewood precisely because so much of the budget is used for private school support. The township has offered to pick up the cost overruns of courtesy busing; I suspect if that is allowed you will see the school levy decrease quickly.

I believe the SCOYUS ruled completely wrongly in previous cases on support for religious schools; it is a clear violation of 1A, and the twisted logic around it is best described by David Souter in his Zelamn dissent as "formalism."

Setting that aside, one of the major rationales for private school support is that these students would otherwise enroll in the public schools, thus further burdening the system. But that is stretching credulity in this case. This is a town where families move in specifically for the religious education of their children. They have every right to do so; they do not have a right, IMO, to ask the rest of the taxpayers of this state to subsidize that choice.

At the very least, the taxpayers have the right to make sure their interests are being served. Given the turmoil in the district for decades, it is clear more oversight is badly needed. But this costs money. I think it's a poor use of taxpayer funds; better to cut the private system lose of public revenue completely.

StateAidGuy said...

I think your first paragraph contains a mistake in how you used "LFS" and you meant "budget" or "spending" instead of that term. Assuming my assumption is correct, yes, you're 100% right that a huge percentage of Lakewood's spending is for transportation. When I checked the comparative data a few years ago, Lakewood's Classroom Spending per pupil was among the 20 lowest in NJ.

I don't know how you would say if Lakewood's LFS is high or not. It's low compared to most suburbs, but it's high compared to most cities (technically $22,674 pp in 2020-21). It's also high due to Lakewood's own past, due to Lakewood's strong real estate market, which includes an industrial park. However, because Lakewood has expenses no other district has to the same degree, it is low compared to Lakewood's needs and Lakewood is further restricted from tapping it due to the tax cap.

I do not agree at all about eliminating bussing for private school students. Although private school subsidies are often defended on the grounds that private schools save the taxpayer money, if you read the Emerson case, a large part of the rationale for allowing bussing was safety, ie, that if bussing were not offered, students would walk long, sometimes hazardous, routes. Since Emerson, worsening traffic by forcing parents to drive their kids has become a significant consideration, and I don't think worsening traffic benefits anyone. In the example of Lakewood, there would be MUCH worse traffic, since there are so many private schoolers.

Frankly I think the US Supreme Court decides too much in our society anyway. I think the justices have their own ideological positions and then selectively cite precedent (and even dissents) to argue for whatever they already decided by gut instinct. Whatever any justice, including David Souter thinks, doesn't automatically persuade me.

To the extent the antiquated, undemocratic US governmental structure forces me to care about what David Souter thinks, I think David Souter's logic if off because of the boundlessness of it and would prohibit any subsidy for a religious private school, no matter how small and indirect and no matter what whatever positive externalities it has (or negative externalities it prevents). It would also allow a grotesque scenario where secular elite private schools get a subsidy, but religious private schools serving working class kids cannot.

In the case of Lakewood's transportation, the savings to a family doesn't even begin to cover a school's secular instruction, let alone religious + secular education. Therefore, I do not think it is subsidizing religious instruction in any real way, since a family would still be paying for a good percentage of secular education.

But Mark, if you object to any subsidy for religious schools because of fungibility of money (the denial of which David Souter called "formalism") then it's hard to defend the old Abood case since a public sector union's money is no less fungible than a private school family's.

StateAidGuy said...

This is how the SC majority has addressed Souter's worry about "formalism" in regards to funding religion.

"A concern for divertibility, as opposed to improper content, is misplaced not only because it fails to explain why the sort of aid that we have allowed is permissible, but also because it is boundless-enveloping all aid, no matter how trivial-and thus has only the most attenuated (if any) link to any realistic concern for preventing an 'establishment of religion.'"

Duke said...

Jeff, I have to admit your argument about Abood is clever. Ultimately, I believe it fails:

1) There is a clear distinction between the bargaining function and the advocacy function of a public union. There is no such distinction between the educational function and the religious function of a religious school. All instruction, even in "secular" subjects, is infused with the doctrine of the school founders: you don't take down the crucifix on the wall when it's time for geometry.

2) The plaintiff in Abood contends he suffers a harm when forced to pay for a service that is rendered to him as terms of his employment by a state actor. That is a very different question from whether the state should pay a religious institution for a service that the state already provides in public institutions. The 1A rights of public employees are not boundless, and it is well established that they do not enjoy unlimited free speech when that speech is directly related to their work. The Establishment Clause makes clear, however, that state funding for religion should be prohibited.

The two situations just aren't the same. But, again, nice try, it's a clever juxtaposition.