Inadequacies of Adequacy Formulas

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Check out today’s NJ Spotlight for an examination of the basis for Judge Peter Doyne’s ruling in the ongoing saga of NJ’s school funding: NJ’s adequacy formula.

When Gov. Christie’s 2010-2011 budget cut $1.1 billion from State school aid, it booted about 200 school districts into “spending less than what the state’s school funding formula deems as adequate” according to our adequacy formula. That deficit enabled Education Law Center to successfully depict the allocation of state aid as cheating a full third of all of NJ’s school districts. Here’s Education Law Center’s David Sciarra, long-time leader of Abbott litigation:

Assuming the court adopts [the fact-finding] report, we’ll be pushing for the prospective implementation of the formula in a manner that provides districts with the benefits that the formula calls for. And that means a heavy focus on those lower-spending, below-adequacy districts.

According to DOE data, our adequacy formula designates $11,289 as the number of dollars sufficient to annually provide a thorough and efficient education for a typical high-schooler. At-risk kids need $16,595 – $17,724 and kids eligible for special education need $22,186.

On average across the country, total cost per pupil spending is $9,666. New York State spends the most ($15,981) and NJ is next at $15,691. Other states in our region include Massachusetts at $12,738, Pennsylvania at $11,098, Delaware at $11,829, Maryland at $11,724, Connecticut at $12,979.

So we spend a lot because of our inefficiencies (shout-out to you, home rule), our challenging populations, our commitment to special education, our generous funding of teacher pension and benefits packages. No shame there. But what does it mean for a district to be below adequacy?

Let’s take a closer look. One district mentioned in the Spotlight piece as falling below adequate spending is Middletown in Monmouth County. Middletown’s District Factor Grouping is GH, which makes it a middle-class district, maybe veering towards upper-middle class in some areas. The schools there appear high-performing – here’s a link to High School North – and total comparative cost per pupil is $12,665. (Total cost per pupil is $14,510, which includes overhead. See bottom of link for DOE definitions.) If ELC wins in State Supreme Court then Middletown is declared under adequacy and the State is obliged to fill in the gap in the coffers.

Here’s another district under adequacy: Montgomery school district in Somerset County. Its DFG is “J,” the highest possible designation, i.e., it’s a very wealthy district. How high-perform ing is it? This high: in Montgomery High School they don’t count kids who are proficient in language arts and math, they count advanced proficiency: 39.8% and 54.5% respectively. While across the state 19% of high schoolers participate in A.P. courses, in Montgomery 43% do, and they can choose among 30 offerings, including Microeconomics, Vergil, Advanced Studio Art Design, and Electro-Magnetic Physics.

But Montgomery High School spends less than deemed necessary under the State’s adequacy formula: $12,578 comparative cost per pupil and $13,188 per pupil with overhead thrown in.

So does Montgomery provide a thorough and efficient education? Is its funding inadequate?

Perhaps we ought to take a step back and consider whether a dollar figure can nail the educational needs of a child. While the adequacy formula allows for increased budgeting for kids at-risk or English Language Learners or special needs, is it possible that we overspend on kids without any disabling conditions?

A teacher in, say, Camden (or Newark or Trenton or Plainfield) may need a different set of skills than a teacher in Montgomery or another high-performing district. Shouldn’t we pay more for that? Conversely, should we pay less in a district where kids learn without impediments? Do kids afflicted with poverty require more than 180 days of school per year? Probably — but maybe the kids in Montgomery or Middletown don’t. In other words, it may be that our adequacy formula paints such a wide swath as to be meaningless.

The Supreme Court might be wise to revisit our basis for equity in education.

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