HILLSBOROUGH, NJ – Gov. Chris Christie came to Hillsborough High School yesterday to announce a sweeping plan that would dramatically shift how local school districts receive education funding from the state.
Christie’s plan would dismantle a 1985 state Supreme Court formula outlined in Abbott v. Burke that directs a disproportionate amount of state aid to poorer, urban districts to equalize funding levels received by suburban districts.
In 1981, the Education Law Center filed a complaint in Superior Court on behalf of 20 children attending public schools in the cities of Camden, East Orange, Irvington, and Jersey City challenging New Jersey’s system of financing public education under the Public School Education Act of 1975.
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The historic case, Abbott v. Burke is widely recognized as the most important education litigation for poor and minority schoolchildren.
Over the past 31 years, New Jersey taxpayers have sent $97 billion to those 31 systems, while the other 546 have received $9 billion less, according to Christie. Those districts represent 23 percent of the students and receive 59 percent of state aid, he said.
“The inequity is appalling and it has only gotten worse as the years have passed,” Christie said.
“The current formula crushes the majority of property taxpayers and has in the past several years chased millions of residents and employers to more affordable states with balanced tax structures,” Christie said.
“We are not talking about cutting aid a dollar,” Christie said. “This is not a budget-cutting proposal. This is a budget-reallocation proposal.”
Christie’s Fairness Formula is predicated on a flat fee of $6,599 that would be paid to all school districts in the state for each student. The plan would require drastic reductions in state aid to urban districts while helping to lower property taxes in suburban communities, according to the governor.
Christie said his plan will lower state property taxes, the highest in the nation. The state Supreme Court has rebuffed past efforts by Christie to reduce funding to the Abbott districts.
The governor, whose term expires in 18 months, vowed to travel across the state lobbying for support of his plan.
“I will demand that the Legislature try to defend the indefensible—that one child is worth more than another in the eyes of the state depending upon their zip code; or they can come along with me to fix this issue and put an end to the misery of our property taxpayers and make history in New Jersey,” Christie said. “I am ready for the fight and I know the taxpayers of New Jersey are looking for us to finally solve this problem.”
Opponents of the Christie plan were quick to react.
State Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester), and Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), chair of the Senate Education Committee, characterized Christie’s plan as a direct attack on equality and fairness.
"This plan is unfair, it is unjust and it is blatantly unconstitutional," they said. "It is a maneuver that discriminates against the most vulnerable students and would systematically deny children an equal opportunity to achieve the American Dream."
Wendell Steinhauer, president of the New Jersey Education Association said the plan is a major step backward and would harm the state’s most vulnerable students.
“Governor Christie’s school funding proposal is a transparent attempt to deflect attention from the abject failure of his education policies. Having never once funded the state’s existing formula, he has no basis for assessing its effectiveness,” Steinhauer said. “New Jersey has a progressive school funding formula that acknowledges the need to invest the most resources in students who have the greatest needs. Gov. Christie has made a mockery of that formula and the values it represents since he took office.
“We know that investing in schools, particularly in economically challenged communities, makes a real difference in the lives of children,” Steinhauer continued. “New Jersey’s nationally renowned early childhood education programs for poor children are just one example of the positive things that have come from the state’s investment in those communities. We should not turn back the clock on that progress.
“Gov. Christie’s proposal would result in a huge step backward to the days when poor families in economically challenged communities were left to fend for themselves,” the NJEA president added. “By sending equal dollar amounts per pupil to each district, regardless of need, his plan would subsidize those who have the most at the expense of those who have the least. That is the opposite of fair; it’s despicable.”
Christie underlined the disparities in the current school aid formula.
In New Brunswick, where the graduation rate is 68.5 percent, per pupil spending for fiscal year 2015 was $22,143; the average property tax bill was $6,710 and the school portion of the local property tax bill was 39 percent – one of the highest in any of the so-called Abbott districts. The Middlesex County city’s schools received $17,914 per pupil in state aid. New Brunswick is an Abbott district.
In East Orange, the graduation rate is 75.58 percent, with per pupil spending at $25,121. The average property tax bill was $8,443 – with only 16 percent of that amount devoted to school taxes. The city received $22,006 in state aid. Est Orange is an Abbott district.
Asbury Park has the worst graduation rate of all the Abbott districts, 66.04 percent, and the highest per pupil cost of all Abbott districts, $33,699; the local property tax average is $5,031, with 25 percent of that amount devoted to school taxes. The Monmouth County municipality receives $28,947 per pupil in state aid.
Hillsborough’s graduation rate in 2015 was 94.48 percent, with per pupil spending at $17,781. The average property tax bill was $6,656, with 67 percent of the local property tax bill paying for education. The township received $5,346 in state aid per pupil.
Somerville’s graduation rate in 2015 was 89.4 percent, with per pupil spending at $18,532. The average property tax bill was $9,029, with 59 percent of the local property tax devoted to school taxes. The borough received $4,522 per pupil in state aid.
“Do not let anyone tell you that failure is inevitable for children in those 31 districts or that money is the answer,” Christie said. “The Academy Charter High School in Asbury Park had an 89 percent graduation rate compared to 66 percent in Asbury Park; Academy spends $17,000 per pupil while the traditional public schools spend $33,000 per pupil.
“The LEAP Academy Charter School has a 98 percent graduation rate in Camden,” he continued, “while the district has a 63 percent rate; LEAP spends $16,000 per pupil while the school district spends $25,000 per pupil. In Newark, the North Star Academy Charter has an 87 percent graduation compared to the citywide rate of 69 percent; North Star spends $13,000 per pupil compared to $22,000 per pupil district wide.”
New Jersey spends the 3rd most in the nation per pupil on K-12 education, according to Christie.
“For the upcoming fiscal year we spend 13.3 billion dollars on aid to K-12 education. How do we spend it? $9.1 billion goes back to school districts in direct aid. $3.25 billion is to pay for the pensions and health benefits for retired teachers, $936 million goes to pay the debt on schools, mostly in urban districts, to build new schools, $13.3 billion—and that does not count the money paid in local property taxes.
“Who gets the $9.1 billion? Well, that begins to tell the story,” Christie continued. “By order of the Supreme Court, and coerced acquiescence by the elected branches of government, this coming year $5.1 billion goes to the 31 urban or SDA districts; $4 billion goes to the remaining 546 districts. That’s right; 58 percent of the aid from the state’s taxpayers goes to 5 percent of the state’s school districts. Forty-two percent of the aid goes to the remaining 95 percent of our districts. This is absurd. This is unfair. This is not working. And it hasn’t been working for 30 years,” Christie said.
“Graduation rates prove that educational success cannot be bought with excessive spending by a select few chronically failing school districts, which have received billions more in state taxpayer dollars over the past three decades than hundreds of successful school districts,” Christie added. “The statewide graduation rate is 90 percent, with 27 of the 31 Abbott districts falling below that average.”