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COMPARING NEW JERSEY SCHOOL SPENDING THE RIGHT WAY: A NEW ELC RESEARCH REPORT

By Danielle Farrie, Ph.D., ELC Research Director

October 5, 2021

New Jersey public school advocates and policymakers are urged to access a new Education Law Center report: “Spending Targets Under the School Funding Reform Act.” The report, using newly released data for the 2020-21 school year, demonstrates why comparisons of school district spending must take into account demographic differences in student composition rather than relying on simplistic comparisons of per pupil spending levels.

ELC once again cautions against making district spending comparisons using data from the NJ Department of Education’s “Taxpayer Guide to Education Spending,” which improperly inflates current per pupil spending by including pension and other non-instructional costs and leads to misinformed and inaccurate conclusions about district spending. The Department’s Taxpayer Guide is often used to disparage urban districts for “excessive” and “wasteful” spending.

ELC posits that to understand district spending levels and make comparisons, actual spending must be compared to targeted spending levels as determined in the School Funding Reform Act (SFRA).

Each district’s SFRA Adequacy Spending Target is calculated by totaling all expenses associated with educating the district’s specific student population. The basis of the spending target is the “adequacy budget,” which defines the minimum amount of spending needed to provide students with a constitutionally required “thorough and efficient” education. The adequacy budget includes a “base cost” for every student plus additional funding, or “weights,” to support students that require greater resources, including students in higher grades, low-income students, and English learners (EL). Costs associated with special education, speech services and school security are also included in a district’s adequacy spending target.

The ELC report shows that the SFRA Adequacy Spending Target for a high-poverty district is about $5,000 per pupil more than for a low-poverty district. However, gaps in current levels of actual state and local funding provided to districts mean there is very little difference in actual per pupil spending levels between high- and low-poverty districts. In other words, the progressivity built into the SFRA formula, where funding increases with student poverty, has not been realized. In fact, many low-poverty districts are spending above their SFRA Adequacy Targets while many higher poverty districts are spending below.

The report provides extensive charts demonstrating how SFRA spending targets are calculated, along with information about actual spending and spending gaps. Interactive charts allow for comparisons of SFRA Adequacy Spending Gaps by district wealth, student poverty, and racial composition.

A comparison between Newark and Cedar Grove schools is an excellent example of the need to look below the surface. Both districts spend about $18,000 per pupil, which is near the state average. But the two districts enroll dramatically different student populations and have very different resource needs. Newark, which serves a much greater percentage of low-income and EL students, has an SFRA Adequacy Spending Target of over $21,752, a gap of about $3,600 from the district’s actual spending. Cedar Grove’s SFRA Adequacy Target is $16,276, which means the district is spending $2,270 above its target.

“It is time to move away from inaccurate comparisons of school district spending that pit districts against each other,” said Danielle Farrie, ELC’s Research Director and lead researcher on the Spending Targets report. “District leaders, advocates, policymakers and the media need accurate data on school spending that acknowledges the vast differences in the costs of educating students and focuses not on what one district spends compared to another, but on whether students are receiving their constitutional entitlement to the resources provided through the state’s school funding formula.”

 

Press Contact:

Sharon Krengel
Policy and Outreach Director
skrengel@edlawcenter.org
973-624-1815, x 24