>NJPP Monday Minute 10/4/10: ‘Friending’ schools in Newark

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There are those in New Jersey, among them Governor Christie, who argue that the state spends too much money on too many things – including its public schools. But in order to have an honest, informed debate about that public investment, it’s important to compare the rhetoric with the actual numbers to see if they match up.

Sometimes they don’t.

Take for example state spending on Newark’s public schools. Compare the numbers discussed publicly in recent weeks and the actual numbers reported by the state. And then contrast those figures with the pledge of $100 million of Facebook stock to the Newark schools that was announced September 24.

A day before Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg made his announcement, alongside Newark Mayor Cory Booker and Governor Christie, on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” the governor decried the deplorable and wasteful state of education in Newark, telling the Star-Ledger that New Jersey spends a whopping $24,000 per student in the Newark school system.

That figure is incorrect, according to data from the governor’s own administration. The New Jersey Department of Education’s Office of Fiscal Policy and Planning puts per student spending in Newark at $16,911 in the 2009-2010 school year budget (down from $19,756 the previous year.) The 2009-2010 state average for per student spending is $13,860, according to DOE.

The Education Law Center, a non-profit legal advocacy group that focuses on public school finance, says even that overstates the true cost per student, which varies widely by district. ELC argues a “weighted” calculation is a more accurate measure than simply dividing the total school budget by the number of students because it factors in the higher cost of educating students who might be impoverished or have special learning needs or limited English proficiency. The ELC’s weighted calculations from its March 2010 analysis, which is based on state figures, puts spending per student in Newark at $10,517 for 2009-2010.

Both the Department of Education’s and the Education Law Center’s figures are substantially lower than the figure cited by Governor Christie. The Governor’s Office of Communications referred a question for clarification to the DOE’s Office of Communications. A DOE spokesman said Newark’s per student cost of $23,600 – rounded up to $24,000 by the governor – covers all expenses in Newark, including transportation and “other” costs. The spokesman did not respond to a follow-up inquiry about what “other costs” are included in that more expansive calculation.

Per student spending is one thing, but how much does New Jersey spend in total on Newark’s public schools?

“For context, we spend $900 million plus or minus in the City of Newark school system right now in state funds,” Governor Christie told reporters at a news conference in Newark the day after the Oprah announcement.

The actual figure is $815 million — $85 million less than the figure given by the governor, according to state Department of Education documents. The Education Law Center also cites the $815 million total as the state’s contribution to Newark.

To give the governor his due, he did say $900 million “plus or minus,” but rounding up from $815 million amounts to almost all of Zuckerberg’s donation. It’s unlikely the governor would want to equate the Facebook CEO’s gift with a rounding error. A Department of Education spokesman did not respond to inquiries about the difference.

The state has cut total state aid to all school districts by $1.2 billion since January (which amounts to 10 percent of the yearly total in a state that already ranks near the bottom in state spending on schools). In Newark, to date, the Christie administration has cut $56.3 million in public school aid — $13.7 million in mid-year FY2010 cuts and $42.6 million in FY2011, according to both DOE and ELC.

That lost aid makes Zuckerberg’s $100 million matching grant very important to Newark. Zuckerberg’s grant even dwarfs the $23.7 million that Newark received from the federal legislation signed by President Obama in August to help school districts rehire laid off teachers.

While Zuckerberg’s largesse might be welcome, it raises complicated issues.

The money is focused entirely on one city, to the exclusion of neighboring Irvington or other urban cities like Camden or Trenton. That raises questions of fairness and favoritism in a public school system established on the ideal of equal education for all students.

It is also an unprecedented injection of corporate money into a public school system, which raises questions of governance and democracy. Decisions in the public schools are supposed to be driven by the local voters through the school board and state Department of Education – not 26-year-old fledgling billionaires. In the words of ELC founder and Rutgers Law School Professor Paul Tractenberg to the Star-Ledger’s Bob Braun, “This is a very dangerous moment for public education. Instead of facing up to our responsibilities to support the schools, we are tearing them apart. We are destroying the very values that created the public school system.”

The least we could do, then, is get the numbers right.

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Filed under Cory Booker, Education Funding, Facebook, Gov. Chris Christie, Jeff Zuckerbg, New Jersey Policy Perspective, Newark NJ, public schools

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