EDITORIAL June-24-2016

EDITORIAL: Nothing fair about Fairness Formula

The following editorial originally appeared in the Asbury Park Press here.

Gov. Chris Christie has dubbed his proposal to redistribute school aid the Fairness Formula. In truth, there’s nothing fair about it.

We have long criticized the state’s school funding formula, which has unfairly penalized many middle-class districts and distributed aid to some that no longer needed or deserved it, often with discouraging results.

But Christie’s plan to allocate $6,599 per student in state aid to each school district, regardless of the wealth of the community or the needs of its students, is both jaded and poor public policy.

To make matters worse, Christie is billing his plan as the silver bullet for property tax relief.

“I’m convinced after six and half years as governor that this is the only way to reduce property taxes, the only way,” he said in announcing his Fairness Formula last week.

That’s utter nonsense, and a disturbing admission of failure to win legislative support for a host of needed reforms he promoted during his first gubernatorial campaign and later abandoned. There are dozens of ways — necessary ways — to reduce property taxes without gutting the education of students in the state’s poorest districts.

And gut those districts Christie’s plan surely will do.

Under the basic plan, Asbury Park, for instance, would lose more than $20,000 per pupil in state aid, while some wealthy districts that now get virtually no state aid and whose students have all the advantages that accrue to growing up in affluence, would get $5,000 to $6,000 per-pupil bumps. That’s fair?

Christie conceded that it would result in the closing of some urban schools, but brushed off any concerns about the devastating impact it likely would have on the future prospects of the state’s most disadvantaged students.

While Christie’s simplistic solution might play well to overwrought property taxpayers, it would condemn students in disadvantaged districts to even dimmer futures.

Yes, the current formula, and the application of it, is grossly unfair. Christie noted that 58 percent of state aid under the current funding formula goes to only 29 percent of the students who reside in the state’s 31 poorest school districts. The extremes and the inequities can’t be allowed to persist.

But there are better ways to fix the formula. We support state Senate President Steve Sweeney’s proposal to create a bipartisan state commission to develop a plan to rewrite the state’s school funding law. While we generally regard commissions as attempts to punt on difficult issues, school funding is a difficult and complicated issue. It deserves serious, thoughtful treatment.

An earlier proposal by Republican Assemblyman Jack Cittarelli to revamp the school funding formula also deserves consideration. Unlike Christie’s proposal, it recognizes that poorer communities need more resources to ensure they receive a quality education.

Any plan that aspires to fairness should have the following elements:

• It should allow any student to attend any school of their choosing, in or out of their district.

• It should continue to provide additional aid to disadvantaged students.

• It should provide aid on the basis of the percentage of disadvantaged students in each district. Those districts with the largest concentrations of disadvantaged students alone shouldn’t be the only ones entitled to additional aid.

• The formula should be flexible enough to take special circumstances into account, such as Freehold Borough’s extraordinarily large number of English-as-a-Second-Language students or Lakewood’s exorbitant private school busing and special education costs, which absorb huge portions of the district’s budget.

In April, Christie promised he was working on a plan to reduce the highest-in-the-nation property taxes. Apparently, that plan is taking away school aid from students that need it the most. It’s that simple. Do that and he can walk away from the myriad other causes of outrageously high property tax bills.

Yes, we need school funding reform. It should have been a top priority for the governor and the Legislature long ago. But Christie’s plan isn’t the way to go about it.

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