Foresight: A ‘Fairness Formula’ for Bankruptcy?

Governor Chris Christie continued his tour of the state in South Jersey, in order to campaign for his “Fairness Formula” which seeks to abolish the current system of educational funding, and instead provide just over $6,500 per student throughout the entire state. The Governor claims that this formula will allow the suburbs to greatly reduce their property tax burden.

The Governor has gotten some high praise from groups and individuals who really are feeling taxed to the gills. Others, though, have been very vocal of how careless this plan is, being that it leaves a giant funding gap in the budgets of dozens of urban school districts that currently rely on large amounts of state aid.

Earlier this week in Bordentown, the Governor participated in a sparring match, tossing the microphone back and forth with a Camden resident who asked the Governor some very important questions, of which I’m not certain he answered.

What is the plan for Camden, Newark, Trenton, and other municipalities who would likely lose more than 50% of the funding they currently receive from the state? As Sue Altman states in the video above, there simply is not any money in Camden, and dozens of other low-income towns, to replace what the Governor plans to cancel.

Some conservatives, and perhaps the governor himself to some degree, seem to think that such districts will simply need to face tough decisions head on, and fire faculty and staff, and close buildings.

That isn’t exactly possible, nor legal in some cases, especially while we remember that the entire reason why places like Camden and Newark currently receive so much state funding for education AND municipal operating costs, is because of the decades of racial segregation and red lining, and pure disinvestment, which has forced just a few dozen towns to hold more than half of an entire county’s affordable housing units, thus leaving these municipal governments unable to collect any more property taxes from their residents because the overwhelming majority of the constituency falls below the federal poverty threshold.

An item that I am not convinced the governor has yet considered, is the wide-spread outcome of this “formula”. Let’s pretend for a moment, that all low-income school districts now are funded by the governor’s plan. What happens to the charter and renaissance schools that he praised as doing better than the public schools? Charter and renaissance schools are funded by the public dollar, and receive 90% of the funding per student that public schools receive. Maybe charter schools are pretty good at doing more with less, but nobody is THAT good, where they perform financial miracles with metaphoric peanuts.

One more item I do not believe the governor has considered, is the financial impact on the entire state should his plan come to fruition. Again, as Ms. Altman said with lots of truth behind her, there simply is not any money around for low-income towns to come up with. Towns that receive large sums of funding for their school districts also receive large sums of special state aid for their municipal budgets, because there is no more money able to be taxed from their constituency. So, what happens when dozens of school districts, and perhaps municipalities even, begin to declare bankruptcy? How many more millions of dollars in legal fees will the tax payers need to waste on another Christie court battle over this seemingly unconstitutional funding formula? How much of a hit will our state economy take when Standard and Poor’s downgrades New Jersey, yet again?

None of that really seems to matter to the governor. He really has not been here at all during his second term. He has no more elections to run for. And, rightly said, it’s easier to lie and then pass this dumpster fire off to the next unfortunate governor, which to be fair, has been happening consecutively across many administrations.

Between Democrats, Republicans, and whatever-party-2016-has-birthed, we should be looking at the anger felt by most conservatives, in which they are tired of paying a lot in property taxes for minimal to no results in urban districts, and we should also be looking at the foresight of some democrats as they caution a possible fiscal catastrophe along with constitutional obligations. All of that should lead us to confirm that, indeed, there is still a very large portion of our state that is not, in any way, being helped by business as usual. The implications of poverty, and extreme poverty, complicate the success of any education, thus making any amount of funding essentially null. It’s politically convenient for any politician to support educational funding as the answer to urban problems, or blame educational funding for high property taxes. But it will ultimately take a very determined politician to face the reality that has been slapping us all in the face for decades, and actually work towards reducing the sheer amount of concentrated poverty in New Jersey. I counter many by saying that a constant neglect of, and financial band-aid over our most impoverished places is more expensive than any funding formula. Let’s begin addressing what is difficult and politically inconvenient, before New Jersey owns dozens of Detroits.

P.S. It’s strange that some constitutional obligations remain patriotically untouchable, while others are so up for discussion. It’s strange how a decision made 30 years ago is some how more irrelevant than an original writing from almost 230 years ago…

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