Friday, October 13, 2006

Abbott Districts, School Funding, Property Taxes

I attended a meeting last week at the Washington School in Plainfield, regarding the Abbott school funding issue.

The main speaker was David Sciarra, Director of the Education Law Center, the organization that brought the Abbott v. Burke case in 1981 on behalf of 320,000 New Jersey children in 31 poor school districts. The case was tried in the mid-1980s and reached the NJ Supreme Court in 1990. Then it took another seven years for the Court to order, in 1997, that “an intransigent legislature” cough up the money for the districts to finally implement new programs for the 1999-2000 school year. By the time funding actually began to bring meaningful help to kids in poor districts, the kindergarteners from 1981 were about 24 years old.

People are focusing on this issue right now because of a July 28, 2006 special legislative session looking at property tax relief for New Jersey residents; taxes are too high, and they’re driving many middle-class families out of the state. It’s a perfect storm scenario: Abbott districts finally got the money to make long-overdue improvements just as federal war costs and tax cuts for the wealthy shredded state budgets. Both budgets have been (partially) balanced on the backs of all children by cutting federal and state education funding, which has left municipalities to make up the difference by raising property taxes. As State Assemblyman Joseph R. Malone III (R) said last April: unless school funding is addressed comprehensively, only "the filthy rich and the obscenely poor" will be able to afford to stay in New Jersey.

In July, the legislature formed four committees to look at possible remedies, such as reducing health and pension benefits for state employees; consolidating municipalities and school districts; and changing both school funding formulas (the court-mandated Abbott formula, and the CEIFA formula, used for all other NJ public schools). Since August, the school funding committee has held hearings to gather expert and public input; these hearings will continue until the committee reports back to the full legislature with recommendations in mid-November, just a few short weeks from now. Under the circumstances, Abbott funding is at risk, unless the grown-ups who love the Abbott district kids speak out now, loud and clear, for the whole state to hear.

The Abbott money has been directed primarily toward preschool and elementary programs; the Court mandated “whole school reform in elementary schools, full-day kindergarten, preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds…with substantive educational standards, certified staff, [and] a maximum student/teacher ratio of 15:1;…a comprehensive facilities effort, after-school programs, and summer school,” according to this summary.

Six years ago, the first preschoolers began learning with good teachers who were finally being paid salaries competitive with suburban districts, helping staff retention. The kids had sufficient books and other materials, and strong support, like tutoring and parent liaisons. They needed all these things to help their communities emerge from decades of public neglect. Sure enough, six years later, positive changes continue to emerge – not only in the enthusiastic energy teachers and students are creating in their schools as kids learn reading, writing, math and curiosity-satisfying skills, but even in test scores.

According to Dr. Lillie Sipp, Chief Academic Officer for the Plainfield Public Schools, in May 2005, only one out of the 10 elementary schools made Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) under the No Child Left Behind Act. But just one year later, in May 2006, when the first of those Abbott-funded preschoolers were in 4th grade, nine out of ten schools made AYP.

“It’s not that the kids can’t learn. It’s that they haven’t been given the opportunity,” said Richard Shapiro, special counsel for 16 of the 31 districts.

“There has been some substantial success and improvements, turning things around after 50 years of neglect,” Sciarra said. “More remains to be done.”

For example, because the court mandate focused on preschools and elementary schools, middle and high schools are still struggling. But help is on the way even there, as plans to increase the rigor of the curriculum and restructure schools to make smaller learning communities, to help kids form stronger supportive connections with teacher-mentors – gain political and fiscal momentum.

“We’ve got a long way to go. We know that,” said Agurs Linwood Cathcart, President of the Plainfield Board of Education. “But we have turned the corner.”

Interestingly, the state has conducted a study to put a real dollar number on the per-child cost of a good education, but hasn’t yet released the study to the public despite requests from the Education Law Center and other advocacy groups. Sciarra believes the reason is that good education is expensive, and thus incompatible with property tax relief unless school funding is completely uncoupled from property taxes. Sciarra’s guess is that the study probably shows that Abbott district per-pupil spending is “just about right,” given the high needs of the children; wealthy districts should continue spending what they already spend; and more money is needed to fill the gap for middle-income, lower-income and rural districts that aren’t covered by Abbott.
It’s also worthwhile noting that the significant improvements have been made even though, for three of the last seven years, the state has flat-funded education, not allocating funding based on the educational needs of the children, and not even including overhead increases for rising utilities, salaries, health insurance and other costs. Gov. Corzine even tried to ax districts’ right of appeal, but the Court stepped in to protect it, after school districts again litigated for New Jersey children’s right to education.

Following that decision, Plainfield appealed state cuts, when submitting its flat budget back in May, asking the state to reinsert funding for “programs, services and positions demonstrably needed” by the kids. As of October 5, there was still no response from the state, according to Victor Demming, Director of Finances for the district.

Much public attention focuses on financial mismanagement in Abbott spending at the state and district levels, sometimes as a prelude to suggesting that Abbott should be scrapped. Whether those accounts are exaggerated or accurate, we don’t need to scrap the program, because it’s working. We need to make public education for all kids a a top fiscal priority, while dramatically increasing citizen involvement in planning, implementing and providing fiscal oversight to the programs, so that the money will be well-spent in a transparent and accountable way.

“This issue about Abbott transcends all of us,” Sciarra said. “This is about kids today and generations of kids that are going to grow up in this community.”

Politically, I’m more or less a communitarian (no, not a communist). The communitarian viewpoint holds that social networks, not individuals, are the cornerstone of healthy societies; that communities provide their members with the basic necessities of life; that there is such a thing as the public good, which calls upon stronger members of society to care for weaker members; and that everyone has positive rights to such things as food, housing, education, health care, safety and a clean environment.

In other words, members of a society have significantly better lives than individuals who live alone in the woods, and therefore all citizens can reasonably be required, non-violently, to make meaningful contributions to the public good from whatever resources in time, energy and money remain after providing a basic living for themselves and their dependents. From that communitarian perspective, I propose:

Federal Taxes: New Jersey should opt-out of the federal tax program, on the grounds that, as Founding Father James Otis said: “taxation without representation is tyranny,” and the federal government, from Congress to the President to the federal judiciary, is failing to provide and protect access to the basic public services Americans need and deserve.

Property Ownership: Revalue every home in New Jersey at $120,000 – about three times the average annual per capita income ($41,626) – and turn the deeds over from the banks to the homeowners: no more mortgage payments.

Property Taxation: For owner-occupied property, collect property taxes at one-half the national average rate. For non-owner-occupied property, collect property taxes at three times the national average, to provide incentives for home-ownership, and disincentives for the hoarding of affordable shelter.

Wages: The minimum wage for a 35-hour workweek in New Jersey should be raised to $30,000 per year. A maximum wage should be established, at $100,000 per year.

Personal Income Taxation: Do not tax individual income up to the state average of $41,636. Tax all individual income over the state average at 95%. (There is precedent for this – during the World War II era, personal income over $400,000 was taxed at 91%; it’s currently taxed at 35%).

Corporate Income Taxation: Tax all corporate profits at 95%.

Accumulated Personal and Institutional Wealth: Personal fortunes should be taxed at 95% upon the death of the individual, and non-financial incentives should be offered for those who voluntarily return their fortunes to their communities before their deaths. Institutional endowments should be managed to continually reinvest the proceeds in programs and services, not to accumulate more wealth for accumulation’s sake.

State Budget: Immediately release all non-violent offenders from state prisons, and abolish the costly death penalty, replacing it with life in prison without possibility of parole.

Local Budgets: Move ahead with consolidating nearby school districts and municipalities to cut administrative costs, provide non-financial incentives for strong citizen oversight to improve accountability, and ensure that citizens of each community still have relatively easy access – by foot, bicycle or bus – to public services.

Prioritize all state revenue to support public-private-nonprofit partnerships, with extensive volunteer citizen management, fully supported by employers through flexible schedules to accommodate employee participation at civic meetings, that provide:

Public Education: day care, preschool and kindergarten through bachelor’s degree, plus continuing adult education for all ages; well-supported public libraries;

Public Health: universal basic health care (nutritional and community garden programs, annual check-ups and routine sick-care for all ages, vaccinations, prenatal and maternity care, drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs);

Public Safety: emergency services such as police, fire and EMS departments; environmental protection and renewable energy programs; public works, parks and recreation programs;

Public Pensions: guaranteed stipends ensuring an adequate, not luxurious, standard of living for all retirees and disabled workers;

Public Transportation: improve and expand bus, train and van-pool programs, bicycle and walking paths.

Whatever your political beliefs and vision for the future, if you want to get involved in citizen support for education, through meetings with local and state officials in Plainfield and Trenton and at public hearings around the state, call education activist George Edward Rivera at (908) 561-5976. As he put it at the meeting: “Everybody wants to talk, talk, talk. Nobody wants to walk, walk, walk.” If you need a ride to any of those meetings, the Plainfield Board of Education will arrange one upon request.


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