We Donít Buy It: Why New Jerseyans Will Reject Governor Chris Christieís Offer to Sell Out Urban Schools
by ZoŽ Burkholder - July 01, 2016
This commentary offers a brief critique of Governor Chris Christie's proposed school funding formula. Placing it into historical perspective, the author argues that New Jerseyans will reject his proposal, which offers cash to middle class suburban families in the form of property tax relief, while eviscerating the budgets of urban school districts with high concentrations of poor and working class students of color. We refuse to go back to separate and unequal public schools.
If middle-class and wealthy families could save thousands of dollars in taxes every year by eviscerating the public schools of their working-class and poor neighbors, would they do it?
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is betting the answer to that question is yes, and hes extolling New Jerseyans to join the movement to attack the states poorest and most vulnerable urban public schools. Deceptively echoing the rhetoric of the Black civil rights movement, Christies proposed fairness formula promises to revise the states school financing formula to deliver precisely the same amount of state funding to each student, with the exception of students with special needs.
This would be a sudden and dramatic change to New Jerseys current public school funding formula, which provides more money to districts serving the largest numbers of poor students. This additional state aid is vital for two reasons. First, urban communities are often unable to raise enough money to adequately fund public schools through local real estate taxes. For instance, the average property tax bill in Trenton is $3,610 and the average property tax bill in Haddonfield is $12,831, enabling Haddonfield to spend considerably more local money per pupil than Trenton. Second, students from economically disadvantaged families are more likely than their middle-class peers to require support services such as tutoring, counseling, bilingual education, and healthcare. These are not enrichment programs, but instead remedial services that allow students from disadvantaged households to perform at grade level. Is it any surprise that schools serving nearly 90% economically disadvantaged students, like Central High in Newark, require more money to educate all students than a school serving 0% economically disadvantaged students, like nearby Glen Ridge High School?1
To make sense of Christies bizarre school funding proposal, it helps to place it into historical perspective. Americans have developed two major strategies to address stark inequalities between our richest and poorest public schools. The first is school desegregation, which has a long history stretching all the way back to the nations first school desegregation movement in Boston in the 1840s.2 In 1881, Black citizens in Fair Haven, New Jersey, demanded access to the separate white schools, generating a fierce debate that the New York Times dubbed the race warfare on the school question.3 As a result, New Jersey lawmakers outlawed racial segregation in the public schools that same year.4 Nevertheless, by 1948, 52 New Jersey school districts still ran separate schools for Black students with what one report described as all-colored school buildings and all-colored faculties. The practice of assigning Black students to separate schools did not end in New Jersey until 1955, when the state closed the all-Black public Bordentown Manual Training and Industrial School after the Brown v. Board of Education ruling.5
But abolishing the separate colored schools was not enough to end racial segregation and inequality in New Jerseys public schools, and racial segregation expanded alongside suburbanization in the second half of the 20th century. Due to dwindling political support for school desegregation and strict legal prohibitions against crossing school district boundaries, public schools in New Jersey today are among the most racially and socioeconomically segregated in the nation. Two recent studies reveal alarming degrees of racial and socioeconomic isolation, noting that disproportionate numbers of New Jerseys Black and Latino students are isolated in urban districts with virtually no white or middle-class classmates. These schools are located in close proximity to overwhelmingly white suburban districts with virtually no poor students. What is more, racial segregation and inequality in New Jerseys public schools has increased over time, so that between 1989 and 2010 the number of apartheid schools with 99-100% students of color increased from 5% of schools to 8%. More than 25% of Black students in New Jersey attend one of these apartheid schools, where facilities, teacher quality, school safety, and curriculum lag behind wealthier suburban public schools, and where levels of low-income students averaged nearly 80%.6
Acknowledging the limitations of school integration as a strategy to improve the quality of education in urban school districts, educational reformers developed a new strategy in the early 1980s. If they could not mix rich and poor studentsand the educational opportunities that accompanied themthen they would increase school funding in the states most economically disadvantaged communities. Dean of Harvard Universitys Graduate School of Education, James E. Ryan, calls this strategy save the cities, spare the suburbs.7 The idea is that white, middle-class suburban schools will be spared the hardships of integrating with their poorer neighbors in return for a financial commitment to save financially strapped urban schools.
This is what happened in New Jersey in 1990 when the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled in Abbott v. Burke that the states school funding law was unconstitutional for children in 28 (later expanded to 31) school districts, including Newark, Trenton, Camden, Union City, Jersey City, and Hoboken. With additional state support, these districts added new teachers, pre-kindergarten, afterschool programs, social workers, bilingual education, and tutoring. According to the Educational Law Center, the achievement gap between white and Black students in New Jersey narrowed between 1999 and 2007 thanks to school finance reform.8
Not surprisingly, even with this modest increase in financial support, most urban public schools still fail to achieve at the same level as wealthier suburban schools in terms of test scores, graduation, and college attendance rates. Governor Christie sees this as proof that more money does not guarantee better academic performance. In an email blast from the Governors office last week, he promised The Governors monumental Fairness Formula will provide equal education funding for every pupil throughout the state, valuing every child equally.9 Despite the emphasis on the words fairness and equal, his plan takes away money from economically disadvantaged urban districts and gives it to wealthier, suburban ones. There is even a website where citizens can calculate their individual property tax savings. When I plug in my hometown of Montclair, New Jersey, the website promises me an average annual property tax savings of $3,339. When I plug in my neighboring communities including East Orange and Newark, the website states, The Fairness Formula may not result in a decrease of property taxes for your town. In fact, this plan would increase state funding to public schools in wealthy communities like Montclair, while stripping it from urban districts like Newark, which would see a devastating 69% decrease in state aid.10
In the historic Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.11 Less than thirty years later, legal and political impediments to school desegregation forced educational activists to pursue a modified strategy designed to equalize a public school system that remained disturbingly segregated by race and socioeconomic class. Today, a white politician has proposed that we adopt a new school funding formula designed to deliberately sink our cities and elevate our suburbs. Breathtakingly classist and explicitly racist, Christies school funding plan is born of the same disconcerting racism and xenophobia that has propelled Donald Trump into the political mainstream.
Governor Christie wants to know if middle-class and wealthy New Jerseyans will sell out our working-class and poor neighbors for a payout that could represent thousands of dollars each year. I fear that this question looks different when we acknowledge its barely-concealed racial undertones. Christie wants to know what happens when we overlap an attack on the working-class and poor with an attack on racial and ethnic minorities. Hes betting such a prospect will raise significant interest in the current political climate.
But I dont think his strategy will work, and heres why. Christies attack on urban public schools is an attack on all public schoolsa new take on his unpopular political agenda that includes cutting public school funding, taking over urban school districts, belittling public school teachers, attacking teacher unions, and expanding charter schools. New Jerseyanslike all Americansrecognize that public schools do more than prepare our youth for college and future careers; they provide vital opportunity for economic advancement and train students in civic capacities that are required in a modern democracy, including tolerance for diversity. If we agree to sell out our cities to elevate the suburbs, the results will be disastrous for all of us. He is asking us to return to an era where our public schools would be profoundly separate and unequal, and that just doesnt make sense. So thanks, Governor Christie, but I wont be joining the movement to destroy my neighbors public schools. The cost is more than any of us can bear.
Laundry class at the Bordentown Manual Training and Industrial School for Colored Youth. Image courtesy of New Jersey State Archives, Department of State.
Wood shop class at the Bordentown Manual Training and Industrial School for Colored Youth, a racially segregated public school in New Jersey that emphasized industrial education from 1886-1955. Image courtesy of New Jersey State Archives, Department of State.
1. The Fairness Formula: Equal Funding for Every Child.Glen Ridge High School, New Jersey School Performance Report, 2014-2015. Central High School, New Jersey School Performance Report, 2013-2014.
2. Moss, H. J. (2009). Schooling citizens: The struggle for African American education in antebellum America. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
3. (1881, March 31). The Fair Haven school trouble. The New York Times, pp. 5; (1881, March 18). New-Jersey law making: The Fair Haven school bill. The New York Times, pp. 5.
4. Thompson Wright, M. H. (1971). The Education of Negroes in New Jersey. New York, NY: Arno Press (originally published 1941)
5. (1854, December 24). Meyner in dispute over Negro school. The New York Times, pp. 11; (1954, December 24). Bordentown Industrial School closing in June. Philadelphia Tribune, pp. 1; (1954, December 17). Jersey to close its all-Negro school because it cant get white pupils. The New York Times, pp. 17; (1954, August 7). Integration dooms school at Bordentown. Afro-American, pp. 4; Bustard, J. L. (1952). The New Jersey story: The development of racially integrated public schools. Journal of Negro Education, 21(3), 27585; Jensen, N. (1948). A survey of segregation practices in the New Jersey school system. Journal of Negro Education, 17(1), 8488.
6. Flaxman, G. (2013). A status quo of segregation: Racial and economic imbalance in New Jersey schools, 1989-2010. Los Angeles, CA: University of California Civil Rights Project.; Tractenberg, P., Orfield, G., & Flaxman, G. (2013). New Jerseys Apartheid and intensely segregated urban schools: Powerful evidence of an inefficient and unconstitutional state education system. Newark, NJ: Institute on Education Law and Policy at Rutgers University.
7. Ryan, J. E. (201). Five miles away, a world apart: One city, two schools, and the story of educational opportunity in modern America. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
9. Email sent from Office of Governor Chris Christie to authors Montclair State University email account on June 23, 2016, with subject, Join the Movement.
10. Goldstein, D. (2016, June 24). Chris Christies education plan is shocking. Slate.
11. Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954).