Southern New Jersey towns with the highest unemployment and poverty in the state will also be among the hardest hit by school-funding reforms proposed by the state Department of Education and Gov. Chris Christie.
The four southernmost counties, Cape May, Atlantic, Salem and Cumberland rank at the bottom of the state in child welfare measures, according to the 2011 Kids Count report by Advocates for Children of New Jersey. Those four counties also have the highest unemployment rates in the state, with Cape May at 14 percent in December and Atlantic County at 12.4 percent compared with 9 percent statewide, according to Department of Labor statistics.
Yet while Christie’s proposed budget would increase state aid to schools almost 2 percent statewide, overall, school districts in Cape May and Cumberland counties will get slightly less aid, at least partly due to enrollment shifts. Atlantic County will see a 2 percent increase as aid catches up to growth in suburban enrollment over the last decade, but its two most economically challenged districts, Atlantic City and Pleasantville, will lose funds.
Advocates for children said the reforms ignore the pervasive problems of poverty and the vital role schools play in giving children the opportunity to succeed. They worry that proposals will pit poor children who need funds against suburban families looking for property tax relief.
“The idea that you can somehow leave poverty behind at the school house door is foolish,” said Cecilia Zalkind, executive director of the Advocates for Children of New Jersey, or ACNJ, which will be monitoring the proposals.
Millions of dollars are at stake. Of the more than $8 billion proposed for state education funding next year, more than $2.5 billion targets programs such as preschool, bilingual and remedial programs, and extra services for economically disadvantaged or “at risk” students, according to the state formula.
Acting Education Commissioner Chris Cerf, in an Education Funding Report that accompanied the state aid figures, questioned whether the state investment in its poorest students has paid off, noting the achievement gap that still remains between test scores of low-income and minority students and their more-advantaged peers.
Using the “more money hasn’t solved the problem” argument, Christie has proposed what he calls “common sense” changes to the state school funding law that would reduce funding to most of the state’s poorest school districts and would also affect districts with shrinking enrollment.
Local legislators said they still have to review the 83-page state report, but are concerned. State Sen Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic, a teacher in Atlantic City, said he doesn’t understand the proposal by state Sen. Michael Doherty, R-Warren, Hunterdon, that all children get the same amount of state aid; Hunterdon County got a 10 percent state aid increase under Christie’s proposed budget plan, the largest in the state. Warren County got 1 percent more.
“It doesn’t make sense,” Whelan said. “Different children have different needs. Poor families need more help. I don’t understand the rationale.”
Rutgers professor Bruce Baker, who writes the “schoolfinance101” blog, noted in his analysis of the state report that the test scores of poor students have improved with extra state aid. But so has the performance of suburban students, so the achievement gap remains. He said if anything, taking money from struggling poor schools and giving more to already more successful suburban schools is only likely to increase the gap.
A report by Stanford University’s Sean F. Reardon found the “income achievement gap” increased by 30 to 40 percent for children born between 1975 and 2001. It attributed part of the growth to improved achievement for families above the median income.
David Sciarra, of the Education Law Center, which has represented urban students in court, said while the state proposal appears to help suburban districts, he believes Legislators will reject it once they understand their long-term impact on all schools. He believes over five years more schools will lose aid.
“Even schools that are getting increases are not getting all they are entitled to under the law,” he said. “It’s just going to take some time for people to realize it.”
State Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, said he has already been talking to his Republican counterpart state Sen. Steve Oroho, who represents districts in Sussex County, the only other county to lose state aid. Van Drew said since they are both on the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee, the school aid proposals will get a thorough review.
Van Drew said he is also concerned about the funding law’s “geographic adjustment” that gives proportionally less aid to districts in the southern part of the state.
“We are going to look at how to minimize the impact of the proposals,” Van Drew said.
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