Governor Chris Christie’s proposal to provide equal state aid to all New Jersey school students would in fact make the state far less equal than it is today. As it is, children growing up in poor neighborhoods typically have higher needs and lower access to nearly everything that creates a healthy learning environment, from good schools to good nutrition to medical care. While money alone doesn’t guarantee better educational outcomes, sufficient funding for teachers, facilities and enrichment services is a pre-requisite for improving schools and fostering healthy, successful communities. And better schools are essential to expanding opportunity and reviving the economies of New Jersey’s cities and the state as a whole.
(UPDATE: Read more about why RPA is taking a stand on school funding policy, and how it relates to the fourth regional plan.)
At the root of the problem is the reliance on local property taxes as the primary source for school funding. Wealthier municipalities, or those fortunate enough to have a lot of high-value commercial property, can afford to spend more on local schools. For example, the city of Paterson has a tax base of $38,495 per person, while nearby Fair Lawn’s per capita tax base is $124,028. State education assistance exists to level the playing field and put resources where they are needed most. Giving the same amount to property-rich and property-poor school districts not only perpetuates educational disparities, it also puts greater property tax burdens on homeowners in the poorest municipalities.
We would never give someone with a chronic heart condition the same level of medical care as we give to someone in the peak of health. Yet the governor is asking the legislature to adopt a one-sided solution that takes no account of student needs or taxpayer capacity. Ultimately, New Jersey needs broader reforms of how it pays for education. For now, the legislature should reject the governor’s attempt to undermine a social contract that has reduced taxpayer disparities and resulted in real educational improvements in many urban districts.