Lower-cost alternatives

November 28, 2008
The Times

Whatever your feeling on the latest round of judicial intervention in New Jersey’s urban public-school-funding soap opera, one thing is clear: The state Supreme Court intends to continue its override of the Legislature’s decisions on school funding.

This is a shame for two reasons. First, and despite what the NJEA (New Jersey Education Association), the ELC (Education Law Center) or any of the other school- based acronyms may assert, spending does not equal achievement. This is not to say that funding is unimportant. But it is meant to grapple honestly with the reality that a dollar spent in no way corre lates to a unit of achievement gained in the state’s Abbott districts.

The Abbotts, despite some of the nation’s highest spending — urban or suburban — remain populated with the state’s worst high schools, lowest standardized test scores, lowest graduation rates, highest teacher and administrator salaries and highest post-secondary remediation rates. To wit, Newark Superintendent Clifford Janey recently revealed that 96 percent of Newark graduates who went to Essex County College needed re mediation, and only 20 percent ever received an associate’s degree. Certainly, $20,482 per student (more if we include teacher pension costs) should buy more for our students.

Allegedly, the justices want to see some actual standards, finally, so we have something against which we can judge what the stu dents should be getting. But we don’t need hearings or depositions to know that what they are getting right now isn’t what it should be.

The second is that they continue to fuel the class war around Abbott funding while undermining the Legislature’s ability to manage the growth of the most expensive sector of government-public education, where roughly two-thirds of all state aid is distributed. Bar none, it is — via construction costs in ex cess of $90,000 per student, average teacher salaries of almost $60,000 increasing at near twice the rate of inflation, and stunning pension and health-care commitments — the cost-driver in the state. To the extent this expense is not managed as revenues decrease, the situation becomes all the more dire.

But the court’s decision, coupled with the state’s growing expenses and shrinking revenue, presents an opportunity for the Legislature to chart a new direction: one not dictated by the court. It addresses costs and, more important, it addresses quality in the Abbotts in a way as yet not done.

The Legislature should aggressively expand charter schools, pass the Urban Enterprise Zone Jobs Scholarship Act making its rounds in the Senate and Assembly and protect privately and community- based providers in the preschool space. Embracing lower cost and more efficient, quality educational options will provide Abbott students a chance to attend better schools, expand the most accountable public-school sector (charters), and give poor kids a good start on life, each for one-half to one-third the cost of traditional public schools in these districts. Students attending new charters will help reduce class sizes in many districts. Additionally, the Legislature should consider making the conversion of existing, low-performing public schools to charters easier.

Notably, charter school teachers are overwhelmingly not unionized, and, as a result, they are far less expensive in the long run for New Jersey taxpayers. You can’t discuss managing costs without discussing how many people you hire and how expensive they are.

The scholarship bill will stop the inflow of students from low- cost private schools, which cost taxpayers nothing, to high-cost public schools, which consume the bulk of state aid. Though the School Funding Reform Act provided some cushion against districts with shrinking populations, the Abbott scheme ensured that shrinking enrollment never meant a district got less funding, and increasing enrollment always meant they got more (i.e., “heads I win, tails you lose”). Maintaining exist ing nonpublic capacity is a stopgap against unaffordable spikes in Abbott public-school enrollment.

And though the governor seems willing to postpone the rollout of Abbott preschool to more than 70 additional districts, he and his team are, mistakenly, not mandating that districts use pre-existing providers. Replicating preschool facilities will put private providers out of business (a reduction in local and state revenue) and make the service more expensive. Surely a lose-lose.

Aside from the prohibitive cost of labor in traditional public schools, charter schools, private and community-based preschools and private schools available under the scholarship bill do not bring any increased cost for facilities. Charters use their own budgets or fundraising, and private schools have their own facilities. And in many of the scholarship bill’s pilot districts, those facilities are half- empty.

Let’s do the math. Should the Legislature let the court continue to override it while funding an expensive, largely failing educational bureaucracy that taxpayers can’t afford, and students can’t afford to stay in? Or should it expand the lower-cost, more accountable charter sector — home to many of the state’s highest-performing schools, urban or suburban — in addition to leveraging available capacity in local private schools for k-12 and preschool?

The decision should be clear. State government in Trenton should add this to its list of ways to control its budget. It’s a new century, and we have new challenges — some of our own making — with which we must deal. But any good solution to a tough problem takes all the tools at your disposal into account. It would be a shame for students, first, and taxpayers, if we didn’t do the same here.

Bottom line: We simply cannot continue to prop up failing institutions and policies that insure the ultimate outcome: state bankruptcy. Look at the U.S. auto in dustry for a clear and obvious answer.

Jerry Cantrell is president of the New Jersey Taxpayers Association.

©2008 Times of Trenton

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