Photo: Mel Evans/Associated Press
By The Editorial Board of New York Times
Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey is using the worst kind of demagogy to distract attention from his sagging poll numbers and burnish his reputation as a Trump-style Republican. That’s the only way to view his deeply irresponsible proposal for stripping New Jersey’s poorest communities of desperately needed education aid to fund property tax cuts for well-heeled suburbanites
This toxic plan does nothing less than pit rich against poor, black against white and city dwellers against suburbanites, and it could well poison state politics for years to come, even if Democrats succeed in fending it off.
Mr. Christie described the plan last week as an attempt to “equalize” funding across districts. He calls for providing a uniform amount of $6,599 per student in state aid to all districts, with an exemption that would provide more money for special education students.
While it sounds reasonable, a flat amount would make it impossible for poor communities to provide a sound education for disadvantaged children who need classrooms with more resources. The state is required by law to send more money to those communities because they simply don’t have the tax base or property values to raise additional revenues on their own.
The New Jersey Supreme Court mandated this approach in Abbott v. Burke, a case named for Raymond Abbott, a student in Camden who received no services for a learning disability and was barely literate at the age of 15. The court ruled in 1990, and in many rulings since, that New Jersey was bound by the State Constitution to fund districts at a level that allows all children to receive an education that enables them to participate in the economy and a democratic society.
As Tom Moran of The Star-Ledger of Newark reported last week, the proposal would gut the Newark school system, which relies on the state for about 85 percent of its budget. The district would have to cut more than half of its budget, which would clearly mean firing staff and shuttering schools. Wealthier districts would, meanwhile, get more state aid so they could cut local property taxes.
No one in education policy could credibly defend a flat formula, because children in different communities have different needs. The state’s current funding formula, adopted by the Legislature in 2008, begins by determining the cost of educating a typical student, and then adds amounts for educating English language learners, poor children and so on. The 31 New Jersey school districts formerly known as “Abbott Districts” educate nearly a quarter of the state’s students, more than 40 percent of its poor children and 56 percent of its English language learners.
Critics of the way state funding works like to say that money doesn’t matter. But it does. A 2013 study of children who had participated in Abbott District preschool programs made significant gains in literacy, language, math and science through the fourth and fifth grades. Beyond that, a national study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that court-ordered spending increases led to higher graduation rates, higher adult earnings, higher family incomes and fewer in poverty for those who had benefited as children.
Mr. Christie has repeatedly thumbed his nose at equity in public education. He now proposes to get around the court orders by persuading voters to amend the Constitution. Influential Republican lawmakers support this disastrous proposal. But the Democrats who control the Legislature need to make sure it dies a swift death.