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New Jersey...and how it got that way: April

Posted December 20, 2007 by Brett Avery

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Situation: The state claims a laudable record on education at all levels, but its spending practices and priorities threaten to undermine that quality as the state becomes increasingly unaffordable for residents.

Cause: For once in this series, some encouraging statistics: The state ranks first in high school graduation (88 percent vs. 70 percent nationally) and college readiness in terms of literary skills and course requirements for college admission (45 percent in New Jersey vs. 34 percent nationally). Nearly three in every four secondary-school teachers majored in the subject they teach (national average: 64 percent). Rosy numbers, yes, but they come at an increasingly onerous price. The state ranks second in the nation in per-pupil average spending ($12,981), with much of that burden carried locally. As property taxes continue to escalate, the state becomes less affordable for low-income and young families trying to gain a toehold in communities, as well as for seniors who are property rich but cash poor. That’s one factor in the leveling of population growth as people move to more affordable regions. The state is approaching a tipping point where it will have to choose between paying even higher property taxes and drastically cutting education and/or other services.

How to fix:

1. Create an acceptable school funding formula for 2008–09.

As discussed in February’s installment on property taxes, the state is on its third funding formula in two decades and spends one-third of its budget on K–12 education. Since February, it has become clear the Legislature will not finalize a new formula for the 2007–08 school year, which was a significant goal of last year’s Joint Legislative Committee.

The Legislature’s job is to devise a plan that gives districts the resources needed to provide a quality education. Each district then determines how best to spend those funds based on student need.

The Legislature has moved at a glacial pace since the State Supreme Court ruled in March 2000 that the funding formula was unconstitutional. The longer the Legislature waits, the more difficult it becomes to implement an acceptable formula as the opposing sides argue their own cases more stridently. At the same time, per-pupil spending in middle-income districts continues to lag behind both higher-income districts that can afford higher property taxes and poor Abbott districts (which are underwritten by state dollars to match higher-income district spending). This year, non-Abbott districts, which educate 77 percent of K–12 students, received 42 percent of state funding. Projections suggest the figure will drop to 30 percent in a decade.

A comprehensive formula tied to average spending and performance can measure need on a pupil-by-pupil basis instead of district-by-district yardsticks used in Abbott’s wake. This type of funding could help reach students who would not graduate as well as the tens of thousands who are unprepared for college.

2. Shrink the number of districts.

“Consolidation” is one of the state’s buzzwords, especially where education is concerned. New Jersey has more than 600 districts, including special education, regional, and vocational schools. The state also has 23 non-operating districts without schools—setups in which administrations and school boards send their kids to nearby districts. Longtime residents have become accustomed to such quirks; to outsiders they are ludicrous. Last year’s Joint Legislative Committee on Public School Funding Reform discussed a variety of consolidation tactics, including forming county districts, but made no decisions.

Three-fourths of the state’s students already attend K–12 districts that might not have to be consolidated at all. But consolidating districts serving the other 25 percent of students could improve cost savings and address economic and educational disparity in adjacent communities (see Collingswood chart, page 59). Addressing these disparities will make any consolidation discussion messier. But, as the Abbott decisions have decreed, this should be about much more than dollars and cents.

3. Strengthen financial support for students in higher education.

Led by Princeton University, the state has a strong collection of private higher-education institutions. It also has several successes in public education: U.S. News & World Report’s college ranking of public liberal-arts schools offering master’s degrees (northern region) includes the College of New Jersey (5th), Rowan (29th), Rutgers-Camden (31st), and Montclair State (46th). Ramapo College is eighth among schools with bachelor’s degree programs (northern region), and Rutgers-New Brunswick is 60th in the national universities category.

Despite these enviable rankings, the state ranks 45th in the number of undergraduate seats at public four-year colleges and has a net annual export of 19,000 students—making us the number-one exporter of college-age students in the nation. One reason is an abysmal funding record: The average full-time resident public college student pays $8,180 in tuition and fees at four-year schools (second or fourth in the nation, based on two separate analyses), but the state ranks 38th in higher education per-capita spending.

The state should solidify its finances so it can appropriate more than the equivalent of 5.1 percent of state and local tax revenues to public colleges, 2.3 percent below the national average. Additional funding also would help two-year community colleges, which fight rising tuition and fees while serving students who typically can least afford higher costs.

4. Clean up the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey.

Since U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie took over UMDNJ’s finances and appointed a federal monitor, a staggering quantity of corruption has been revealed at the country’s largest health sciences school. State Senator Wayne Bryant abruptly quit a $38,220-a-year no-work job, for which he is now under investigation. Cardiologists had $150,000-a-year no-show jobs to funnel patients to UMDNJ. Medicare and Medicaid were billed $36 million extra with $5.7 million in illegal fees to doctors.

The latest revelation is a widespread exam-copying scandal at the dental school. In case you’re keeping score, that’s student cheating black eye No. 2: A reported 25 percent of the Class of 2006 had to perform community service to atone for a scam involving trading credits for clinical procedures never performed.

Federal monitors can remain busy for years scrutinizing UMDNJ’s eight divisions scattered across the state. Curbing corruption and cheating will save money the state can redirect toward education at all levels while repairing the institution’s reputation. But it also ensures tomorrow’s doctors and dentists are prepared to take care of the rest of us when we need them most.

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