Christie’s School Tax Relief Plan: Big Help for Suburban, Expensive Districts
The idea behind Gov. Chris Christie’s proposed school funding overhaul is simple enough: “Equal funding for every child.”
“No child deserves less funding from the state’s taxpayers,” Christie said when he rolled out his proposal last month, adding that it was “fundamentally wrong” that 31 of the state’s poorest school districts receive five times as much in state aid as other districts.
“A funding formula that puts a higher value on one child over another is morally wrong and it has been economically destructive," he said.
To address this, Christie’s Fairness Formula would give every school district $6,599 for each regular-education student. Districts would get further aid for special education students, but the bulk of the aid from Trenton would be divided equally.
To someone unfamiliar with the way schools are funded now, that may not sound like a sweeping proposal. But many suburban districts currently get just a fraction of that $6,599 — and so would see huge property tax relief under Christie's plan. Many urban districts now get far more and would be left scrambling to make up the losses — though they couldn't do much of it through local tax dollars because of Christie's property-tax cap law.
The current system is the product of decades of court precedent backing the notion that students in impoverished districts should not be deprived of the quality of education available to affluent students, as well as legislation that provided the poorest districts with massive state subsidies in order to bridge that gap.
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Christie has come out swinging against the idea that money alone can fix troubled schools and has declared that districts like Newark could do a better job even with less money. Lawmakers backing the formula say that no child should be worth more than another.
But under Christie's plan, school districts across the state would not spend equally on every child: Many of the state's wealthiest districts would continue to spend more than poorer urban and rural districts — able to do so both under the current and proposed Fairness Formula systems because they can afford to take more tax dollars from their communities.
The differences under the proposed formula would only widen in many cases.
Christie is counting on popular support for this plan and has called on the Legislature to place a constitutional amendment on the 2017 ballot — rendering those years of court decisions moot.
The result of such a formula would be that more than 75 percent of the state’s school districts would see an increase in the amount of school aid they receive from Trenton. And as a result, property owners in those districts would see their tax bills decrease.
Although they wouldn't be allowed under the tax-cap law to use their new infusion of state aid to boost their budgets further, these districts could keep spending at levels similar to those they do now.
But another consequence is that the state’s poorest districts would lose millions. Many of them would lose more than half of the state aid they currently receive.
And while many blue-collar and middle class communities would benefit under Christie’s Fairness Formula, the biggest winners of all — those seeing the biggest jumps in the percentage of state aid paying for each student — would be among the wealthiest school districts in the state.
And many of those wealthy districts have some of the highest per-pupil spending costs in the state — in many cases, well above those of the poor districts currently getting big boosts in state aid — New Jersey 101.5 found.
Democrats and advocates for education justice slammed the plan as one that runs counter to Christie’s stated goal of “equity” in school funding.
David Sciarra, the executive director of the Education Law Center, which litigated nearly 40 years of state Supreme Court cases that shaped the current funding formula, last month said Christie’s plan is “the opposite of fairness” because it does away with the system that allocates state aid “based on student need.”
Under that system over the last 30 years, the state sent $97 billion to the 31 districts commonly known as the "Abbotts" after the series of rulings in the Abbott v. Burke case.
The other 546 districts with nearly 80 percent of the state's students shared $88.2 billion.
State courts have long held that it is unfair to ask poor communities to rely on local property taxes to fund their schools. Poorer communities have less taxable property value, often as a result of land being occupied by nonprofit hospitals, universities and government buildings that don’t pay taxes. And more of their residents have less ability to pay.
The Supreme Court in the 1970s did away with an equalized funding system similar to what Christie is proposing today.
A big boon for towns like Christie's own
Christie has pointed to the per-pupil costs of urban districts — which last month he repeatedly characterized as failing — as proof that they are “overfunded.”
But some of the districts with the highest per-pupil costs are also the wealthiest — and usually the most successful, with the higher-than-average test scores and graduation rates.
Christie’s hometown of Mendham Township in 2015, for example, spent $26,782 per student — $3,784 more than Trenton and $4,769 more than Newark, two school districts that Christie has singled out for scorn.
Under Christie’s formula, the disparity in the per-pupil funding would likely end up even more yawning.
The Morris County suburb — where 44 percent of households earn more than $200,000 a year — would get enough state aid to cover almost a quarter of its school budget, up from the current 2 percent.
The average homeowner there, meanwhile, would save an average of $2,971 on property taxes, according to an analysis by the governor's office.
On the other hand, Newark — where the median household income is less than $38,000, and where 43 percent of all children live below the poverty level — would lose an amount close to half of its billion-dollar school budget and would be constrained on how much the district could make up through tax hikes.
“The notion that ... the places were the poorest kids are found should have the smallest resources makes no sense at all,” said Gordon MacInnes, the director of the New Jersey Policy Perspective, a progressive think tank that has criticized the state’s property tax system as unfairly regressive.
“This approach would lead to really heartbreaking stories about what cannot be done in the poorest districts and how unnecessary the increase in state funding is in the affluent districts,” he said.
“Under the governor’s proposal, they would enjoy a very, very significant increase in state funding that would be supplied by cutting the hell out of budgets in the poorest communities," MacInnes said. "I don’t think anybody would think that would be ‘fair.’”
Can money solve the problem?
Christie and backers of his proposal argue that more money isn't the solution to lagging test scores and below-average graduation rates.
“I think the Supreme Court now has 30 years of history to look at the failure and the fact that it is negatively impacting education in all of the 546 districts and not helping,” Christie said.
“There’s no inequity in funding anymore. Not even close. In fact, it’s an inequity in the other direction. So their system just hasn’t work. They overcorrected. They meant well. They were wrong, and we have to make a new argument to the Supreme Court.”
Christie points to urban charter schools that have demonstrated academic success while spending half what the public schools in the same cities spend.
“You could clearly live with that kind of reduction in Newark and be able to continue to educate the children,” Christie said. “It would mean fights with their unions over work rules and all the rest. But that’s a fight that needs to be had.”
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Sciarra says the proposal “would devastate our schools by removing an unprecedented level of educational resources — teachers, guidance counselors, librarians, support programs and services, and more — from districts all across the state.”
But the Christie administration says that reducing state aid to urban districts would not necessarily result in budget cuts because those districts could reap savings by closing underutilized school buildings. And cities could shift spending from what he describes as bloated municipal budgets, Christie said.
Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli, R-Somerset, who called Christie's proposal "a jump-start to a conversation we need to have," has criticized the municipal government of Jersey City, an Abbott district, for awarding lucrative property tax breaks to building developers, who end up paying no taxes to the school system that's largely subsidized by the rest of the state.
“Elected officials want to hire their uncles, aunts, cousins, nephews and nieces to grow municipal government larger and larger and larger and spend significantly over the statewide average in property taxes on their municipal government,” Christie said in Hillsborough last month.
While those decisions by municipal officials affect the tax base that a school district relies on, school officials have no legal power over spending by City Hall.
Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, D-Mercer, who represents Trenton, a school system Christie has held up as an example of chronic failure, said the governor's proposal was "disingenuous."
"Does the governor intend to pay property taxes for tax exempt state buildings in the city of Trenton?" Gusciora said last month. “It’s disappointing that he chose division rather than working to bring people together. He must be hanging out with Donald Trump too much.”
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