New Jersey’s school funding formula is among the most progressive in the nation, but a new report shows the state’s failure to fully fund it has left a significant equity gap between white and Latinx students — and the coronavirus is threatening to widen it.
Gov. Phil Murphy on Tuesday signed into law a $32.7 billion, nine-month spending plan that holds school funding flat and sets the state back in its seven-year commitment to fully fund the formula and achieve equity in spending for all children.
That means another year Latinx students will have to make do with less funding than the state says they need, compounded by difficulties wrought by the pandemic, including access to technology and a disproportionate toll the virus has been taking on their families and communities.
It will also send the state scrambling for more money next year when New Jersey — which already has one of the worst credit ratings among the states — will be facing an increasingly uncertain fiscal picture.
Yet, Murphy, lawmakers and union leaders are celebrating the flat funding as a success. After all, they say, the state didn’t have to cut school aid during a pandemic that devastated revenues. At the same time, they’re hoping the federal government will come through with rescue aid next year.
“[This budget] protects the enhanced investments we have made over the past two years in our public education system and in our classrooms,” Murphy said at Tuesday’s budget signing event, where he appeared alongside New Jersey Education Association President Marie Blistan.
Senate President Steve Sweeney, who also attended Tuesday’s signing ceremony, has said full funding will be a priority in the next budget.
“We’re absolutely going to try to get back [to full funding] next year. A lot depends on the federal government,” Sweeney told reporters last week, adding that he hopes to “be able to do more next year than what the governor proposed — get back on track, like a doubling-up almost,” in funding.
But Bruce Baker, an education finance expert and professor at Rutgers University‘s Graduate School of Education, said in an interview that his research shows New Jersey is “backsliding” in its attempts to fund white and nonwhite students equally.
“For the last decade, it’s really kind of fallen apart,” Baker said of school funding in New Jersey. “New Jersey schools now are about as equitable as they were in the early 1990s.”
Baker’s report found that some districts should be receiving over $5,000 more per pupil to provide their Latinx students with a “thorough and efficient” education guaranteed by the state constitution.
One easy way to close the gap in a normal year, Baker said, would be for the state to fully fund the formula — add an additional $2 billion a year to overall school aid every year — and the formula itself would take care of the rest.
But during a pandemic, when every school is pursuing a different style of teaching — from remote, to in-person to a hybrid of the two and where districts are competing for resources, grant money and even teachers and school nurses — the opportunity gap between white and nonwhite students is growing and becoming more complicated.
New Jersey as a national model
New Jersey’s School Funding Reform Act, or SFRA, was established in 2008, after a landmark series of court decisions in the 1980s and 1990s known as Abbott v Burke, which argued that the state’s school funding rationale discriminated against poorer urban districts and favored wealthier suburban ones.
The SFRA was intended to be a shining example of what school funding equity could be. The formula is meticulous: It assigns a “weight” or value to every student in a district based on their various needs. Students enrolled in a free- or reduced-cost lunch program, for example, are considered “at risk” and given an additional weight, as are students considered to have Limited English Proficiency.
All of those values are then calculated by the state and presented as a district’s adequacy budget — the amount of money a district needs to provide all its students with a “thorough and efficient” education.
Despite some flaws in the system and the failure of the state to ever really fully fund the SFRA, it— and the remedies from the Abbott cases — worked.
To an extent.
Baker said his research shows New Jersey school districts that have majority Black populations are, on average, relatively on par funding-wise with predominately white districts.
“Abbott worked. I think you can clearly demonstrate that the Abbott litigation did succeed in increasing revenues and expenditures for low-income, but also Black and Hispanic students across the state. I don’t think there’s any denying that,” Danielle Farrie, research director at the Newark-based Education Law Center, which successfully argued in the Abbott cases, said in an interview.
That doesn’t mean conditions within school buildings are necessarily equal or that Black students on average receive the same quality education as white students. But in terms of per-pupil spending at the state level, they‘re nearly the same, Baker said.
According to state data for the 2018-19 school year, the most recent available, the typical New Jersey public school district spends, on average, $21,866 per pupil. Majority-Black Newark Public Schools spent $23,938 per pupil, while majority-white Toms River Regional spent $17,606.
On paper, the SFRA could be a “solid model” for equitable school funding nationally, but it only works if there’s enough money being put in, Baker said.
That’s something New Jersey has never done.
Under NJ S2 (18R), the law spearheaded by Sweeney and signed by Murphy in 2018 that was meant to iron out some of the issues with the SFRA, the state was put on a seven-year timeline to fully fund the nearly $2 billion per year still required by the formula.
Now, with flat funding, New Jersey is falling behind on that path and students entering grade school this year may not receive the funding the state says they are entitled to until high school— if they see it at all.
A widening equity gap
Without this funding, those who will suffer the most, Baker said, are the growing communities of Latinx students who were not party to the original Abbott rulings and missed out on all of the remedies offered to majority-Black cities.
Baker said the equity gap for Latinx students is widening because the state doesn’t have enough money to fully fund its formula and as a result, local voters and school boards are the final deciding factor for whether to raise local taxes to pay to educate their students.
Those voters and school boards, he said, don’t necessarily reflect the community they represent.
“If you have a white power structure and a brown student population you don‘t get the increases of funding if you have a white power structure and white student population,” Baker said. “Districts that have greater capacity to pass [tax cap] overrides in the coming years will continue to do so and widen that gap.”
We’ve come a long way
Mark Magyar, policy director for the state Senate Democrats, said Baker’s study provides a “snapshot” of the inequities in New Jersey, but includes data from years before the S2 changes were enacted.
“There have been tremendous gains being made in the past four budget years and we’re on the path to full funding,” Magyar said.
He cited the continuing reallocation of aid, which moves money from so-called “overfunded” districts to “underfunded” districts, many of which include communities with majority Latinx populations. Magyar said districts like Elizabeth, Dover, Paterson, Passaic and Perth Amboy which all have Latinx populations of 65 percent or more, have been beneficiaries of the S2 changes and have seen their state aid grow significantly since 2018.
But Farrie, of the Education Law Center, said federal aid might not come. And if New Jersey experiences a second wave of Covid-19 or more serious economic consequences, school funding cuts are not out of the question and students will have to shoulder that burden for generations.
“The finish line just keeps getting further away and harder to reach,” she said.