New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has been an abject disaster for his state’s students, teachers, and schools. Since assuming office in 2010, the self acclaimed teller of “like it is” has broken promise after promise, callously tossed the Garden State’s most vulnerable children into barely regulated experiments, and heaped insult after insult upon the state’s teachers. A good way to approach almost any education proposal from Chris Christie is to simply assume that it will cause far more harm than good and then try to gauge just how far along the harmful spectrum it will actually be.
Chris Christie ran for Governor, promising teachers that he would not touch a dime of their pensions, but one of his first acts was to ram through a pension reform plan that he subsequently failed to fund – even while handing management of the fund over to Wall Street firms who raised annual fees from $140 million a year to $600 million a year and then planned to give $100 million of the fund to a firm started by a major donor to the Republican Governors’ Association right around the time the RGA was spending almost 2 million helping Christie get reelected. Governor Christie’s refusal to meet funding obligations is not restricted to the state pension fund. Governor Christie cut nearly $1 billion from the state school aid budget when he entered office, and that shortfall has never been made up for regardless of the district. In fact, as Chris Christie was announcing his candidacy for the President of the United States, his own Department of Education reported that the state budget was roughly a billion dollars short of the fair funding formula used to determine school aid.
Chris Christie is more than happy to unleash chaos and mismanagement on poor children of color in New Jersey just so long as his favorite charter school operators stand to benefit. With the aid of then Newark Mayor (now Senator) Cory Booker, the disastrous “One Newark” plan was foisted onto the state’s largest district overseen by the incompetent and out of touch Cami Anderson – who was so standoffish and incapable of dealing with criticism that she even ignored lawmakers’ requests for meetings for an entire year. Anderson was finally ousted but replaced by former state commissioner Chris Cerf who is cut of almost entirely similar cloth but who knows how to smile in public better. Chris Christie pivots on other education issues with big public pronouncements that look like 180 degree changes – but which amount to almost nothing of substance. While the governor likes to brag that he is “changing” the Common Core Standards in response to criticisms, his department of education continues its slow march towards making the enormously flawed PARCC assessment a graduation requirement in the Garden State.
And, of course, Chris Christie’s famous temper has led him to lash out in the press and directly in the faces of constituents over and over again. This is a man who claimed teachers used students as “drug mules” for a civics lesson. This is a man who whined that the teacher union said he hated children for a simple billboard that said nothing of the sort:
This is a man who has screamed at multiple teachers in public:
And who has disparaged teachers’ work as not full time.
Given this history, it should give readers some pause that Governor Christie’s address on school funding in Hillsborough on June 21st was a new low even by his standards. Under this “plan” the city of Newark, whose median household income is $34,012 a year, where 29.9% of the population lives below the federal poverty line, and where the median value of an owner occupied home is $229,600, would see its annual school aid drop by 69%. Meanwhile, Summit, a community whose median household income is $121,509, where 5% of the population lives below the poverty line, and where the median value of an owner occupied home is $774,800, would see its annual school aid go up by 1506%. The Governor would accomplish this by completely eliminating the school fair funding formula and then distributing $6,599 in per pupil aid to every school district in the state regardless of the community’s poverty or property value characteristics. When Governor Christie watches “Robin Hood” he must see the Sheriff of Nottingham as nothing more than a misunderstood public servant making certain no ne’er-do-well layabouts get any of Prince John’s precious taxes:
A very brief background is in order: New Jersey’s fair funding plan is actually one of the bright spots for equity in the Garden State’s education system. New Jersey’s Abbott Districts are the result of decades of legislation and litigation, and the designation of an Abbott District takes into account matters such as educational adequacy, concentration of poverty, and the use of additional funding as a remedy. The result of this has been New Jersey’s fair funding plan (the very one that Governor Christie has consistently underfunded) which directs substantial amounts of state aid to the most disadvantaged school districts throughout New Jersey. Currently, there are 31 such districts in the state, and their current foundational aid from the state reflects the provisions of the School Funding Reform Act of 2008. As recently as 2012, the State Supreme Court ordered the state to fully fund the SFRA, noting that consistent underfunding of the aid formula is “a real substantial and consequential blow” to students’ rights to a “thorough and efficient education.”
Governor Christie is apparently sick and tired of that.
In his speech, he pointed out that of the $9.1 billion spent annually on school aid, 58% of it goes to the Abbott Districts. He decried this as “absurd” and “unfair.” He claimed that school results from those districts prove that the Supreme Court was wrong to conclude that funding matters in urban education. He provided cherry picked statistics on government spending in a few districts as “proof” that those communities can make up their school spending by trimming waste. He blamed all of this for holding property taxes at high levels across the state. He then proposed taking the entire $9.1 billion pot of (still inadequately funded) school aid and dividing it equally among every student in the Garden State:
If we were to take the amount of aid we send directly to the school districts today (in excess of $9.1 billion) and send it equally to every K-12 student in New Jersey, each student would receive $6,599 from the State of New Jersey and its taxpayers. Every child has potential. Every child has goals. Every child has dreams. No child’s dreams are less worthy than any others. No child deserves less funding from the state’s taxpayers. That goal must be reached, especially after watching the last 30 years of failed governmental engineering which has failed families in the 31 SDA districts and taxpayers all across New Jersey.
In Margate, they would receive 428% more in aid. In Fairlawn, 815% more in aid. In that town, when combined with our 2% property tax cap, this new aid would result in average drop in their school property tax of over 2,200 per household. In Teaneck, 389% more in aid and an average drop in property taxes of nearly $1,600. In Wood-Ridge, an 801% increase in aid and a drop in property taxes of over $1,800. How about South Jersey? In Cherry Hill, an increase in aid of 411% and a drop in property taxes of over $1,700. In Haddonfield, an increase in aid of 1705% and a drop in property taxes of nearly $3,600.
The pattern is repeated everywhere. South Orange aid up 912%, taxes down over $3,700. In Readington Township, aid up 410%, taxes down nearly $2,000. In Robbinsville, aid up 666%, taxes down over $2,600. In Freehold Township, aid up 153%, taxes down over $1,500. In Chatham Township, aid up 1271%, taxes down $3,800. In Wayne, aid up 1181%, taxes down over $2,100. All over the state, we slay the dragon of property taxes by implementing the Fairness Formula. For the first time in anyone’s memory, property taxes plummeting not rising. And all through valuing each child and their hopes, dreams and potential the same.
It takes a special kind of chutzpah to underfund the state aid formula for your entire tenure as governor, to unleash chaos and mismanagement on the largest Abbott Districts that are under state control and whose problems are entire on your head, to thoroughly fail to deliver on property tax relief in the state as a whole, and then to turn around to your constituents burdened with high taxes and blame it on failures of schools in 31 communities, some of which are among the poorest and most distressed in the entire country. Newark families whose schools have had dangerous lead levels in them since at least 2010? We’re cutting your aid almost 70% so we can give it to families that earn 400% of your income and give them a property tax cut to boot! Go find the money to make up for that in the couch cushions at city hall.
At least we now know that Governor Christie’s vacant stare behind Donald Trump in March wasn’t because he was being taken hostage – it was because he was trying to think of the most vile and damaging thing he could do to New Jersey’s most vulnerable children.
Let’s be clear: The SFRA does not send vastly more aid to the Abbott Districts because it isn’t “valuing each child and their hopes, dreams and potential the same.” That is absurd and offensive. It does so because the intent is for the funding to be a remedy in recognition that it does not cost the same to educate each individual child and that certain districts with specific characteristics have expenses that other districts do not. A school that needs additional security measures because children have to travel through high crime areas on their way to school has higher per pupil costs than one that does not. A school that has a high percentage of English Language Learners who need specialized instruction has higher per pupil costs than one that does not. A school that has a high percentage of students with high need Individualized Education Plans has higher per pupil costs than one that does not. A school that has special instructional programs for students whose families lack material and supplemental resources such as books and private tutoring has higher per pupil costs than one that does not. A school that provides wrap around services such as social workers and health services has higher per pupil costs than one that does. This is because, despite the governor’s willful misrepresentation of the issue, the SFRA is designed to account for equity so that students who begin their education with vastly less than wealthier peers have a fair shot.
Governor Christie further tried to obfuscate the issue by claiming that the Abbott District schools could do far better with much less state aid because the only schools that he ever speaks highly of, urban, no excuses, charter schools have higher graduation rates and test scores with fewer per pupil expenditures. This is misleading on several front. First, some charter school costs are actually paid for by their host districts, so the charter schools cannot properly claim they get less money when the host district carries what would normally be part of their per pupil costs. Look at the third question on this page: New Jersey requires host districts to pay for the transportation of charter school students. Second, we know full well that the high flying, test score achieving, charter schools beloved by Governor Christie simply do not have the same students as their district hosts, enrolling fewer students who are poor and fewer students with high need disabilities. Further, their attrition rates are so high (as high as 60% for African American boys attending North Star Academy) that they entirely depend upon district schools to take back the students they refuse to accommodate. Those Abbott District public schools that Governor Christie wants to function on less than half of their current state aid? Their EXISTENCE enables his favorite charter schools to suspend the dickens out of their students until the ones they don’t want leave.
Finally, while these charter schools might spend less per pupil than some of their host districts, how they spend less is instructive. For example, in Newark, the public school district as a whole spends $3,963 per pupil more on “student services” than the charter sector in Newark. Such services include social work, attendance support, health, guidance, special education services, etc. and since NPS enrolls far more special education students – and vastly more high cost special education students – than Newark charters, this is entirely predictable and proper. Meanwhile, although Newark’s charters spend significantly less on student services, they do manage to spend far more than NPS on administrative costs, especially administrative salaries – $2,460 per pupil compared to NPS’ $1,362 per pupil.
So what lessons can New Jersey most impoverished school communities learn from Governor Christie’s favorite schools in the state about “doing more with less”? Drive away half of your students via massive suspension, don’t spend money on things like services that your most needy students require, and double your spending on administrative salaries? Of course, if every school followed that model, we’d have no place for all of the kids that we refuse to educate. Maybe Delaware will take them.
Governor Christie plans to spend the remainder of his term – at least when he isn’t playing chief errand boy for “Cheeto Jesus” – pursuing this agenda with the apparent hopes that he can entice New Jersey’s wealthy suburbanites to literally throw the state’s poorest children under the school bus. He’s even given it hashtags: #FairnessFormula and #EquityforNJFamilies (which is deranged since this is the OPPOSITE of equity). The good news is that New Jersey is not Kansas, and Democratic lawmakers do not sound willing to accommodate the Governor’s last ditch efforts to utterly destroy urban schools for the sake of finally keeping his broken promises on property taxes.
But just let this be known as exactly what Governor Chris Christie stands for.