But Slippage on Fairness Expected from State’s Pattern of Underfunding
New Jersey has ranked consistently in the National Report Card as one of the few states with fair public school funding, both in terms of average funding levels and the progressive distribution of funds. But since 2010, funding fairness has been slipping in the Garden State.
This is one of the key findings from the 4th Edition of Is School Funding Fair? A National Report Card (NRC), issued today by Education Law Center (ELC). This edition of the NRC analyzes data from 2007 to 2012 on several fairness measures, including whether states allocate more funding to districts and schools serving higher need students. The fairness of a state’s finance system is a key indicator of the extent to which students are afforded a meaningful opportunity to be successful in school.
In 2012, an order by the State Supreme Court, issued in the landmark Abbott v. Burke case, resulted in the partial restoration of Governor Chris Christie’s prior $1.1 billion aid cut, which helped New Jersey regain some lost ground on funding fairness to students in high poverty districts. The Court directed the Governor to put back $500 million in state formula aid illegally cut from the budgets of 31 high poverty urban districts. The Court declined, however, to restore another $600 million cut from other districts across the state, including many with high numbers of students living in poverty.
In 2011, the year of Governor Christie’s major cut in school aid, the funding advantage for New Jersey’s high poverty districts had shrunk to only 11%. This means that, on average, the highest poverty districts in the state received about 11% more funding per pupil than the state’s lowest poverty districts.
In 2012, after the Governor restored the $500 million under Court order, overall fairness jumped to 30%. Even with this one-time bump, New Jersey still lags behind the 40% level sustained by the state from 2007 to 2009, before the Great Recession began to impact education budgets.
Despite the slippage from 2009, New Jersey’s system of public school funding remains among the most fair in the nation. The state’s overall level funding for all students – $17,299 per pupil – ranks 3rd in the nation. And because the state allocates considerably more to its higher poverty districts and schools – with average funding at $14,544 in low poverty schools and $18,867 in the highest poverty schools – it achieves an A grade for distributing more funds to account for the additional needs generated by student poverty.
New Jersey’s high marks also reflect how unfair school funding remains in most states across the country, including neighboring Pennsylvania and New York. As this latest edition of the NRC shows, New Jersey and only three other states achieve fair ratings on both level of funding and distribution of funding to meet the additional educational needs generated by student poverty.
Fairness Expected to Decline After 2012
Due to the lag in available federal data, the 4th Edition of the NRC analyzes funding fairness through 2012. ELC expects that the data from 2013 to 2015, when available, will show fairness resuming its decline in New Jersey. This is because, under Governor Christie, there has been almost no increase in state school aid in 2013, 2014 and 2015. In the last three years, the aid increases required under New Jersey’s groundbreaking weighted student formula – the School Funding Reform Act (SFRA) – have not been appropriated in the annual State budget. This failure has hit higher poverty districts the hardest since these districts rely heavily on state aid and have limited capacity to raise additional local revenue under the State’s hard 2% cap on local property tax increases for schools.
The preliminary data indicate that fairness will slip further also because of the differences in taxing capacity between New Jersey’s poorest and wealthiest districts. From 2012 through 2015, while state aid remained largely flat, the wealthiest districts, which rely more heavily on local funding, managed to increase local revenues by $1,200 per pupil, while the lowest wealth districts increased local funding by only $17 per pupil. The bottom line: funding in New Jersey’s highest wealth districts is climbing, while remaining stagnant in the lowest wealth districts, further eroding the fairness that has been the hallmark of the state’s finance system for so long.
“New Jersey is among the very few states that provides a sufficient overall level of funding progressively allocated so poor districts have the additional resources their students need,” said ELC Executive Director David Sciarra and a report coauthor. “But the Christie Administration’s hostility to fair school funding over the last six years is taking its toll. We must get back on track to maintain our position as a leader in equity and opportunity for all students.”
Is School Funding Fair? A National Report Card is coauthored by Bruce Baker of the Rutgers Graduate School of Education; David Sciarra, Executive Director of Education Law Center (ELC); and Danielle Farrie, Research Director for ELC. Please visit www.schoolfundingfairness.org to download the report and to explore the findings with interactive data tools.
Policy and Outreach Director
973-624-1815, x 24
Director of Policy, Strategic Partnerships and Communications