Christie’s “Fairness Formula” is Anything But
I’ve long admired New Jersey governor Chris Christie’s skills as a communicator—he has a knack for explaining complicated issues in ways anyone can understand.
In education, he’s often used his talent to expose the fundamental absurdity of factory-era education policies—like quality-blind layoff rules, automatic teacher tenure, and evaluation systems that treat teachers like widgets. He’s also been a fierce advocate for students in some of the state’s neediest communities, by supporting turnaround efforts in Newark and Camden that have produced progress even in the face of controversy.
That’s why it was so disappointing to watch him turn his back on common sense this week. He unveiled a new school funding proposal—dubbed the “Fairness Formula”—that would give all schools the same amount of funding per student, regardless of the challenges their students face.
In fact, this approach is anything but fair—it is akin to reducing the budget for snow removal in New York to the level of that in Los Angeles in the name of “equality.” Consider Newark Public Schools, the state’s largest district. More than three-quarters of its students qualify for free and reduced price lunch, compared to less than a quarter of the kids in Montclair, a suburban district where the average household income is well into six figures. Newark serves far more students who are English learners, have learning disabilities, and are dealing with housing instability and the traumatic effects of poverty.
Those children are morally (and legally) entitled to more services that will give them an opportunity to succeed. This is why school systems across the country have been moving away from funding formulas that pretend schools serving the highest-need students can function as well as others with the same amount of money. It’s why Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act exists.
But the effect of Christie’s proposal would be to take tens of millions of dollars a year away from districts like Newark—the ones serving students with the most challenges—and send it to districts like Montclair. The scale of the potential upward redistribution is staggering: Newark could see more than $14 million of annual per-pupil funding disappear, more than two-thirds of what they currently receive. Camden City Schools could lose more than $23 million a year, or almost 80 percent of their current per-pupil funding.
Given that these school systems have recently closed schools, laid off teachers, and cut their central operating budgets to the bone in recent years, it’s almost impossible to imagine the real-world consequences that cuts of this magnitude would have (full disclosure, TNTP has worked with the districts in Newark and Camden in recent years). They would certainly snuff out any momentum for change in struggling school districts—momentum Christie spent his own political capital to create.
The one education-related argument Christie offers in support of his plan is that gutting the budgets of failing school systems will magically force them to fix their problems. Here he’s as misguided as those who argue that more money alone can turn around struggling schools. I’ve spent most of my career arguing in one way or another that what school systems do with their money matters as much as the amount of money they have. All the money in the world, for example, won’t make schools great if they don’t use it to hire and retain great teachers.
But money still matters—a lot. School systems can’t attract teachers, social workers or guidance counselors, maintain buildings, serve breakfast and lunch, run school buses, offer specialized and advanced courses, or organize extracurricular activities (to name just a few things) with IOUs. The only “magic” you’ll see if Christie’s plan goes into effect is a lot of opportunities for students disappearing in districts where they already have far too few. While districts can often operate more efficiently and should always feel pressure to use public funds responsibly, taking a meat axe to school budgets is not the way to create productive pressure, it’s a way to trigger a crisis in underserved communities.
I don’t pretend to know much about politics in NJ but assume that the proposal will not even sniff the real world—not in a state with a solidly Democratic legislature, and in the face of what I’d anticipate to be vehement opposition from the civil rights community, unions, and parent groups. Even if it doesn’t get enacted, the proposal itself has a damaging effect on policy debates as it promotes the absurd idea that schools serving predominantly poor and minority students currently have too many resources, or that wealthy suburban school districts are on the wrong side of inequities in public education today.
The worst part is that Governor Christie has demonstrated that, at least in education, he knows better.
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