Today EdBuild shines a bright light on school funding inequities with the release of its second report in a series called Dividing Lines: Gated School Districts. The authors frame it this way:
While our public schools have the potential to be the great equalizer of our time, funding systems currently in place only serve to draw starker contrasts between the have and have-nots.
Districts where funding inequity is most acute are called “island districts” and these 180 districts are created by “arbitrary borders that serve to lock students into, or out of, opportunity.” The three districts profiled in EdBuild’s new edition are Piedmont, California; Bexley City Schools in Columbus, Ohio; and Freehold Borough in New Jersey.
Freehold Borough is a poor district surrounded by wealthy neighbors, truly an island in a sea of plenty. There are three schools here, two elementary and one middle, with 1,643 students. According to the most recent data from the New Jersey Department of Education, the district’s total operating budget is about $21 million and about half of that comes from the state. Seventy-four percent of students, of whom 69 percent are Hispanic and 11.2 percent are Black, qualify for free or reduced lunch. The annual cost per pupil in Freehold Borough is $11,846, well below what the state considers “adequacy,” and well below New Jersey’s average cost per pupil of $19,652.
Freehold Borough schoolchildren, as EdBuild has it, “exist on the wrong side of an impermeable line, separated from opportunity.” According to Jeff Bennett at NJ Education Aid, who has studied Freehold closely, the district is under-funded by $8,113 per pupil, the fifth worst case of under-funding in the state.
Freehold Borough Superintendent Rocco Tomazic announced at a school board meeting that he was unable to provide the “thorough and efficient education” to his students promised by the state Constitution because of lack of funding and space. The district, in fact, is designed for far fewer students but two building referenda failed—most likely because many of the residents are undocumented immigrants and ineligible to vote.
An Asbury Park Press article describes how the “middle school has no library, class sizes are over recommended limits and students with special needs or who don’t speak English are not getting the additional support they need.”
“We’re on top of one another,” said a tearful Diane Dispenza, a 30-year teacher at the Freehold Learning Center. “The children of Freehold Borough, they don’t deserve it.”
Under the state’s funding formula, the Borough should receive $23.7 million in state aid next year, but is only slated to receive $9.7 million due to underfunding. Since the state legislature has failed to address the Borough’s need for additional state aid, system leaders have tried to act locally. The Borough has tried and failed twice to win voter approval for $33 million for new school construction.
A state judge has since agreed that the schools are “severely overcrowded” and recommended that the state Commissioner override the local community’s vote and order that they support a construction bond. But the Commissioner has declined to act, and the underfunded Freehold Borough School District continues paying rent to its wealthy suburban neighbor.
On the Other Side of the Tracks
Less than six miles from this “island” district of Freehold is Colts Neck Public Schools. There, 92 percent of the district’s 923 students are white, and 6 percent Black or Hispanic. Three percent qualify for free and reduced lunch. The total operating budget is $22.4 million, more than Freehold Borough, which educates many more students with far greater needs. The cost per pupil in Colts Neck is $22,345, twice as much as Freehold’s.
EdBuild’s analysis of the funding inequities in Freehold Borough are especially timely, given the recent ruckus over Gov. Christie’s flat school funding plan ($6,995 per student, regardless of economic circumstances), which incited outcries from a variety of educators, lobbyists, and commentators (including me).
Christie’s proposal is terrible, but it serves one important purpose: to highlight the inequities of New Jersey’s current school funding system, frozen in suspended animation by a court-ordered school funding plan that, ironically, attempted to ameliorate school funding inequities.
Twenty years ago 31 “Abbott” districts were designated so needy that they must henceforth be funded at very high levels. One oft-touted example is Asbury Park Public Schools, which spends more than $33,000 per pupil per year.
But right now Freehold Borough is poorer than some Abbott districts and nothing will change until the state legislature is able to negotiate a new school funding plan that satisfies various lobbyists (looking at you, Education Law Center) invested in maintaining an obsolete Abbott list and New Jerseyans aghast at sky-high property tax bills.
Meanwhile, students in Freehold Borough sit shoulder to shoulder in their island school, isolated from both academic opportunity and equitable funding.