LILLEY: NJ Spends 59% More Per Pupil Than the National Average But These Two Cherry-Pickers Say ‘We Need More’

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We have already documented 10 reports where Mark Weber and Bruce Baker cherry-pick data to support their preferred conclusions that always adhere to the agenda of New Jersey’s teacher union, NJEA.  Not that we’re suprised: Weber is an NJEA member, the NJEA is one of biggest funders of their new publishing platform (New Jersey Policy Perspective), and the NJEA is always calling for more education spending.  So it’s little surprise that Weber and Baker are happy to churn out flawed “research” that uses cherry-picked data to reach predetermined conclusions blessed by NJEA leaders.

This time it’s entitled “New Jersey School Funding: The Higher the goals, the Higher the Costs.” but the substandard biased methodology is the same as in the previous 10 reports. Here are some examples:

1.  More spending is NOT always better.  As the title makes clear, Weber and Baker once again claim that more money means better student achievement, but there is a great deal of research that says otherwise. Per NJ Ed Report, NJ Chief Justice Wilentz found that: “funding alone will not achieve … an equal education in these poorer urban districts.”  And in any event, Weber and Baker undercut their own argument: They use Massachusetts student achievement as the higher standard for which NJ should strive but neglect to inform readers that MA achieves these standards while spending substantially less per pupil than NJ.

2.  MA gets better results while spending a lot less.  According to US Census Bureau data for FY2018 (the year NJPP uses), NJ spent $20,021, the 3rd highest in the nation, and 17% more than MA’s $17,058, which was 6th highest. Also, NJ spends a lot more of what it has to work with: When compared to state personal income, NJ spent $30.08 per $1,000 of income, the 2nd highest in the nation and 30% higher than MA’s $23.24, which was 19th.  So it is incontrovertibly true that MA gets better student achievement while spending a lot less.  This undercuts the basis for Weber/Baker’s entire argument.

3.  Weber and Baker use their own “imperfect” model to make state policy recommendations.  The contrary Census data helps explain why Weber and Baker chose to use their own National Education Cost Model, which purports to show how much more education spending it would take to reach a desired level of student achievement.  But compared to clear-cut and transparent US Census data, their NECM is a veritable black box.  After some digging, Sunlight found that Weber and Baker acknowledge the limitations of their own model: “These estimates are imperfect but useful, yest [sic] one must be careful not to overinterpret these estimates, or assume them to be exact or perfect targets for the amount of money that must be spent to precisely achieve a selected outcome.”  Yet Weber and Baker proceed to do exactly what they caution against: overinterpret the estimates and assume them to be exact targets to achieve a selected outcome.  They even go so far as to make state policy recommendations based on them.

4.  Weber and Baker ignore actual spending levels. Note that Weber and Baker never give the actual spending levels for the districts they identify as underfunded: they only provide the amount of the shortfall for what their black-box model says should be spent.  Why?  Because the actual spending data paints a very different picture.  Here is state data for the actual spending numbers for the districts NJPP identifies (except Clifton):

District FY2018 As % of NJ Avg
NJ Average  $21,866 100%
Elizabeth  $22,169 101%
Jersey City  $26,028 119%
New Brunswick  $23,639 108%
Newark  $23,938 109%
Passaic  $24,360 111%
Paterson  $30,527 140%
Perth Amboy  $23,383 107%
Trenton  $23,009 105%
Union City  $23,080 106%
Vineland  $21,622 99%
AVERAGE  $24,176 111%

So according to the actual state data, NJ spent an average of $24,176 per pupil in the districts NJPP identifies, which was 11% more than the average for all NJ districts.  And remember that is on top of what NJ already spent: 3rd highest per pupil in the nation, or 59% more than the national average and 17% more than MA.

5.  Weber and Baker ignore Asbury Park.  Finally, Weber and Baker inexplicably leave out Asbury Park from their group of identified districts even though it has a large number of minority students.  In FY 2018, Asbury Park spent $42,382, or 194% of the state average, which happens to be about the same amount Weber and Baker say is needed for Trenton.  Yet, as NJEdReport notes, Asbury Park’s proficiency in math and reading “remained in the cellar.”  One is left to ask:  if $42,382 did not get Asbury Park to MA’s achievement levels, why should we believe it will get Trenton there?  Thus another inconvenient data point is simply ignored by Weber and Baker.

This now makes 11 flawed reports by Weber and Baker. Sunlight asks why NJPP would put its imprimatur on Weber and Baker’s work, given their long and continuous record of producing flawed, biased “research.” We are left to conclude that NJPP is more interested in pleasing its generous benefactor, the NJEA, than publishing credible, independent research.

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