Perspectives in Education- Part 8: New Jersey's Abbott Schools

Because liberals believe that money solves all problems and because New Jersey is a liberal state with a liberal state supreme court, the example of New Jersey is perfect for demonstrating the silliness of this approach. The phrase Abbott school comes from a series of court rulings initiated by the Educational Law Center and included the New Jersey NAACP among other litigants. The state constitution provides for a thorough and efficient public education for all students. The courts ruled that New Jersey was not living up to this constitutional mandate in certain areas. As a result, the state was placed under a series of remedial orders that originally targeted 28 school districts, whose number has since risen to 31, with increased state funding for these districts. These were identified districts that failed to meet certain academic performance requirements and which had a high level of poverty as well as a disproportionate percentage of local property taxes diverted to schools. In essence, the courts were telling the state that they needed to fill in the financial gap due to declining property values in certain localities. Most of these districts were urban with a few notable exceptions and all had minorities comprising the majority of the population. The mandate covers a variety of towns from the small hamlet of Salem (pop. 5,100) to Newark (pop. 277,000). The overall average population of the Abbott districts is about 60,000- midsize for New Jersey cities.

When people think of New Jersey, they envision a great industrial skyline of sprawling factories and cracking towers lighting up the night. That is true of only a portion of the state, mainly the northeastern section from about Middlesex County north. Below there, the primary economic driver is agriculture and tourism. While counties like Bergen and Essex, which have the greatest number of Abbott districts, are well-represented, the “problem” in the southern section is different. All of these towns except a few did not all experience bad times. Mainly because of the urban upheaval of the 1960s, the middle and upper class whites fled the cities to nearby suburbs. Go a little west of cities like Newark and one will find oases of affluence, mainly white. The black power movement of the 1960s and 1970s may have gained “power” in these urban centers, but they lost their financial sugar daddy. In the southern part of the state, except in the case of Camden which was always industrial, growing Hispanic migrant populations basically became less migrant and stayed in towns like Vineland, Millville and Bridgeton, all three Abbott districts. Towns like Asbury Park and Long Branch are more complicated examples of the conversion from once vibrant cities to what they are today.

As a result of this flight from these areas and lower earners moving in, the municipalities lost property value. Property taxes are the main driver and source of local school district revenue, especially in New Jersey. With less affluence and less businesses, thus less rateable property, the loss in revenue meant a decrease in school budgets while facing the more difficult task of educating a more difficult clientele. Enter the Educational Law Center, NAACP, ACLU and other liberal groups who, after several years of this and deterioration of these areas in terms of infrastructure and educational performance, moved to have the state essentially replace the money lost through local property tax declines. Some of the shortfall was made up for by federal Title I subsidies, the very targeted populations the law had in mind in 1965. However, the New Jersey supreme court was mostly concerned by the state’s commitment to a thorough public education, not the federal government’s contribution to mitigating the costs.

In effect, the New Jersey supreme court, starting in 1985, was advocating the Johnson/Carter paradigm to improving these schools: more funding. In 2008, the state was released from several court mandates with the passage of the School Funding Reform Act which codified these mandates. In 2009, however, the Christie administration, in an effort to cut and balance the state budget, made serious decreases to education spending. This was immediately appealed to the state supreme court again which ruled that the state must reinstate $500 million in educational spending in order to meet their obligations under the 2008 law. And this is illustrative of the problem in New Jersey and Christie’s response to the state supreme court. Despite his verbal protestations, he ultimately deferred to the court and reinstated the decreases. This is like the Reagan strategy explained earlier. The unfortunate political fact is that not all of the $500 million was specifically targeted at Abbott districts, although a good portion was. But, there was no political will among any single local official to ask Christie to stand his ground since they welcomed the money. That included the usual liberal Democratic strongholds and such unusual Republican affluent bastions like Princeton, Morristown, and Bogota.

And what is the outcome of two decades of increased state funding for Abbott schools? An optimist will say they are “mixed.” In eight short years, from 1999 to 2007, the 4th grade achievement gap had narrowed from 31 to 19 points and in reading from 22 to 15 points. A 2008 symposium on the effects of Abbott confirmed the mixed bag of results. Gordon MacInness, the former state Commissioner of Education who oversaw implementation of Abbott noted that the gains were seen through fourth grade, but once the student got to eighth grade, the advantages were gone and by high school non-existent. Some of the proposed explanations for the “successes” of the program was mandatory preschool programs in these districts and local reform initiatives which actually is a good argument for more local control. As an example, MacInness noted that the gains in reading literacy seen in Union City were attributable to a locally-developed program with the input from teachers, parents, and administration.

In reality, what the codified Abbott mandates do is bring the level of funding in these districts not up to some state average, but up to the levels of the most well-funded districts despite the obvious socioeconomic differences. It is not “separate, but equal” but “separate but equal plus ten.” Despite all this additional funding flowing to these districts from Trenton in addition to the already flowing Title I funds, academic achievement, except in a few broad cases and with a few examples, has not improved substantially and a discernible achievement gap still exists.

Comparing the 31 Abbott districts against 31 non-Abbott districts similar in ethnic make up and population, the differences are vividly seen. For example, Abbott school per pupil spending is almost 18% higher than these other school districts. The graduation rate in the Abbott schools is 71% compared to 89% for the non-Abbott schools, a 14% difference. And despite the shrinking gap in scores among 4th graders, the number of 4th grade students testing proficient in reading is 48% below their non-Abbott counterparts. As noted earlier, Union City developed their own literacy program from the ground up. They, in fact, have the highest proportion of 4th grade students testing proficient in reading at 56.4% among Abbott schools, higher than 13 of the 31 randomly selected non-Abbott schools. Yet, by 8th grade, the Union City reading scores exceed none of the non-Abbott school districts.

Overall per pupil spending in New Jersey averages about $12,000 while in Abbott districts, it averages $15,000 going higher in some locales like Camden. Meanwhile, the average level for your typical suburban school is $11,000. Regarding the state’s contribution to school funding, the wealthier districts receive about 19% of their budgeted funds from the state compared to 67% state funding in Abbott districts. In the upcoming 2014-15 fiscal year, an estimated $4.4 billion of the state’s $7.7 billion state education budget will go to these 31 districts. That represents 5% of all districts and 22% of all K-12 students. The reason is to keep local property taxes low in these covered districts which is a perversion of the state income tax which was sold to voters as a means of keeping property taxes low throughout the state. In fact, in non-covered districts, surprisingly the ones that have shown the greatest improvements in test scores over time are the ones who have kept annual property tax rate increases below the state average.

To illustrate the perversity of the system, if a wealthy district expends $15,000 for a fencing team- arguably a perk that adds nothing to academic achievement- an Abbott school district is entitled to a match of $15,000. That is, when this equalization system was set up to match the wealthier district’s spending, there was no consideration to factors such as these. Some of these wealthier districts funded programs that had nothing to do with academic achievement or classroom instruction, but it was part of their per pupil expenditures so the Abbott schools had to receive additional funds because they were factored into the per pupil funding formula.

It should be obvious by now that this judicially enforced nonsense, since codified under Corzine (not Christie), is nothing more than a massive redistribution of wealth cloaked in the language of educational reform. Furthermore, the state supreme court should be chastised and sued for fraud since the state income tax was passed to keep down property taxes while New Jersey still has some of the highest property taxes in the country. Here is a little fact that often goes unnoticed: Hoboken was just recently ranked as the #8 city in the COUNTRY as far as median household income goes. This is the home of people like Jon Corzine and Eli Manning. Yet, Hoboken is an Abbott district still receiving greater than 50% of their school budget from the state. The problem is that the Jon Corzines and the Eli Mannings of the world can afford to send their kids to private, successful schools.

Recently, Repubican state senator Joe Kyrillos proposed that Abbott school funding levels be cut back to a more reasonable level. He suggested the state average as a starting point. Liberal groups like the NAACP and the Educational Law Center- two of the original litigants- screamed bloody murder…and racism. They are obviously ignorant of the fact that this program has been, except in a few rare instances, a failure and a lesson to the rest of the country that money on top of money will not solve the problems of any school system. As one state legislator described it, “Its like pissing down a rat hole.” This is the New Jersey state equivalent of Johnson’s Title I federal spending on K-12 education on steroids. And no one bats an eyelash at the obvious inequities.

The most recent report on school funding from the state Department of Education has stated that the system is a failure in reaching a goal of closing the achievement gap. Most of the reforms suggested are technical with respect to spending. But as a blueprint for true reform, there is more promise assuming anyone has the intestinal fortitude to pursue these reforms. One can only hope that when Christie is reelected in November he will not have the constraints of worrying about another campaign and carry through on the needed school level reforms. They will likely upset the NJEA union apple cart. In the interim, no rational state legislator outside New Jersey should look to the Garden State as an example of how to narrow or eliminate the achievement gaps that exist in every state.

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