Friday, June 24, 2016

Dana Goldstein Misunderstands Abbott, SFRA


Dana Goldstein is a good education writer, but like most other journalists, she uncritically accepts certain myths about Abbott that circulate among the NJ edusphere without anyone bothering to look up if they're true or not.

Goldstein's essay in Slate is right about the foolishness of Chris Christie's proposal to give every district equal state aid per student, but this section on Abbott history is incorrect:

The vast majority of public education funding comes from state and local sources, most notably from property taxes. In 1990, in Abbott v. Burke, New Jersey’s Supreme Court ruled that the state’s school funding formula betrayed the state constitution’s promise of providing a “thorough and efficient education” for all by sending more money to affluent suburban schools in towns with high property values. To remedy that, the court required supplemental funding for the state’s 31 poorest districts, including Newark, Trenton, Camden, Union City, Jersey City, and Hoboken. Today, thanks to a revised funding formula crafted by both Democrats and Republicans, the state sends extra per-pupil dollars not only to those 31 “Abbott districts” but to students in any district who are poor, learning to speak English, or disabled. Cities and towns with large groups of those kids receive additional money to compensate for the challenges that come with concentrated poverty, such as the need to hire social workers or bilingual teachers.

Let me unpack the wrongness of this paragraph alone:

First, the NJ Supreme Court accepted the constitutionality of the school funding formula for most poor districts, but only said it was unconstitutional for "poor urban districts," ie, the then-28 Abbott districts.



Second, this is totally untrue:
"[NJ was] sending more money to affluent suburban schools in towns with high property values." 

NJ had progressive state aid even in 1990, but it was a flatter distribution than what we have now.  In 1990, for instance, Newark already got $263,782,806.  Paterson got $94,935,249.  Millburn got $1,729,178, or 0.6% as much as Newark.  I don't have early 1990s student enrollment figures, but Newark was getting much more per student.  

Even if you look at less extreme comparisons, you see that NJ was not sending more money to "affluent suburban schools."  Bloomfield was getting $5,228,575, again, which is much more than Millburn was getting per student but less than Newark.  Bound Brook, a very small district, was getting $2,139,354 in 1990, which was more than Millburn, more than Bloomfield, but less than Newark.

In fact, six of the future Abbotts were already spending above the state average in 1990.

Third, this is also partly untrue:

"To remedy that, the court required supplemental funding for the state’s 31 poorest districts, including Newark, Trenton, Camden, Union City, Jersey City, and Hoboken.:

The 31 Abbotts (originally 28) were never NJ's 31 poorest districts. Over 30 districts in DFG A were excluded from the Abbott list because they weren't considered "urban." Very poor DFG A districts that didn't become Abbotts included Buena Regional, Pinelands Regional, Bass River Township, East Newark, Paulsboro, and National Park Boro.  (See the 1980s DFG classification used by the Supreme Court to create the Abbott list.)

Hoboken, Pemberton, Long Branch, Burlington City, and Neptune, who were Abbottized, were not plausibly among the poorest in NJ even in 1990 either.  

Fourth, this section is totally untrue because it  characterizes SFRA as an operating law not utopian fantasy:

Today, thanks to a revised funding formula crafted by both Democrats and Republicans, the state sends extra per-pupil dollars not only to those 31 “Abbott districts” but to students in any district who are poor, learning to speak English, or disabled. Cities and towns with large groups of those kids receive additional money to compensate for the challenges that come with concentrated poverty, such as the need to hire social workers or bilingual teachers.

Yes, NJ theoretically has a law to send more money to poor non-Abbotts, but SFRA IS NOT AN OPERATING LAW!!!  The state "does not send extra per pupil dollars to students in any district who are poor."  SFRA is a joke.  Poor non-Abbotts are lucky if they even get half as much of what their Abbott peers get.  SFRA has never been fully funded and cannot be as long as NJ is in a fiscal crisis.  Having a fair school funding law is one thing, but funding it is quite another.  

Here's more error from other sections of Goldstein's essay:

But Christie has always opposed [Abbott]. When he came into office in 2010, he proposed more than $1 billion in education budget cuts, a move the state Supreme Court declared unconstitutional.

This is wrong in context and factuality.  In 2010 Christie cut $1 billion in response to the budget crisis and the depletion of federal stimulus money, not because he didn't like Abbott.  The $1 billion in cuts was across the board, with every district losing aid equivalent to 4.9% of its budget.  Many affluent districts, including Christie's hometown of Mendham, had their state aid drop to $0.  The aid cuts affected the Abbotts, but the Abbotts weren't specifically targeted.

In the Abbott XXI decision, the NJ Supreme Court only declared unconstitutional cuts to the Abbotts.  Cuts to poor non-Abbotts, like Freehold Boro, Dover, Fairvew were considered constitutional.  The NJ Supreme Court ordered $500 million restored to the Abbotts, not the full $1 billion.

This is also mostly untrue:

It is true that New Jersey school districts like Newark and Camden continue to struggle. What Christie didn’t mention is that those districts are in state receivership, which means that the person ultimately accountable for their low performance is ... Chris Christie. It isn’t reasonable to expect that Newark, a city where 81 percent of students live in poverty, would have the same graduation rate as Hillsborough, where only 5 percent of students are poor. Even so, high-school graduation rates in Newark are up. And overall, poor children of color across New Jersey have experienced big academic gains since Abbott—gains that Christie is loath to acknowledge and that would be rolled back if his new funding plan becomes a reality.

Umm, four of the Abbotts were or recently were under state control (Newark, Camden, Paterson, and Jersey City).  The others are autonomous, although there's been some special monitoring of Asbury Park.

What Goldstein doesn't admit about academic gains is that they have occurred in poor non-Abbotts too, not just Abbotts.  Chris Cerf demonstrated this in 2012 in his Education Funding Report and other researchers have found the same gains in non-Abbotts.  


Dana Goldstein means well, but she is spreading myths here.  Maybe it would help journalists if they talked to people other than David Sciarra?

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