Several weeks ago, New Jersey Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf gave a "State of the Schools" presentation to local superintendents and educators. Among the areas covered by Commissioner Cerf was the level of funding and spending levels in NJ's low wealth, high poverty districts.
Commissioner Cerf offered a pointed critique of the public schools newly identified as "priority" and "focus" schools, located predominately in high poverty districts. Priority and focus schools are, according to the NJ Department of Education, "low performing" and "failing" based on "new" accountability metrics, primarily standardized test scores. These schools are now targeted for as yet unspecified "interventions" that may include State-ordered closure or "takeover" by national charter management organizations.
In sharp contrast, the Department has also created a new classification of high performing schools, called "reward" schools. Reward schools are primarily in high wealth, low poverty districts.
In addition to criticizing the performance of districts with priority and focus schools, Commissioner Cerf also presented data showing that spending in these schools exceeds the statewide average, suggesting that funding is not an important issue. The Commissioner's comparison of funding levels between these highest need districts and the statewide average is both misleading and unfair.
What the Commissioner's critique ignores is the dramatic demographic differences between these districts and the rest of the state. The districts with priority and focus schools have dramatically higher levels of poverty, many more students learning English, and high student mobility. These characteristics require additional resources in order to deliver the extra services the students in these schools need to succeed. To compare the funding levels of these extremely high need districts to a state average where such characteristics are far less prevalent is deceptive.
The Commissioner also fails to mention that New Jersey's school funding formula enacted in 2008 - the School Funding Reform Act (SFRA) - is based on the accepted principle that students have needs that require more resources to give them the chance to meet State academic standards. The SFRA formula provides additional funding for poor (at-risk) students, limited English proficient (LEP) students, and students with disabilities. These extra funds are calculated as a percentage of the base student cost and called a "weight," and each district's budget is funded based on its "weighted student enrollment."
Thus, to fairly compare spending among NJ districts, per pupil funding amounts should use the SFRA "weighted student enrollment" so that per pupil figures are comparing "apples to apples" to the greatest degree possible.
Using the SFRA funding per weighted pupil measure results in a vastly different picture than what Commissioner Cerf presents in his "State of the Schools." The Commissioner portrays spending in districts where the majority of priority and focus schools are located - Newark, Camden, Paterson, Trenton, Elizabeth, and Jersey City - as dramatically higher than the state average. However, if the district funding levels are adjusted for student need, funding in these districts ranges from $9,307 to $10,956 per pupil, not very different from the state average of $10,315.
In fact, the average spending levels of the high poverty districts with priority ($10,488 ) and focus schools ($10,123) are lower than the largely low poverty districts with reward schools ($11,414).
So let's set the record straight about NJ school spending. While high poverty districts receive more funding under the SFRA formula, they do so to address the intense concentration of need among the students they have to serve. This is exactly what an equitable system of school finance should do. It's time for Commissioner Cerf, as the State's chief education officer, to get these facts straight.