Tuesday, April 25, 2006


In Camden and Newark, N.J., it now costs nearly $1 million to turn out just one academically-qualified, college-ready high school graduate, according to an April 19 article in the Times of Trenton (N.J.). That reflects the folly of school financing “equity” lawsuits and “equitable revenue” schemes such as contemplated by the Omaha Public Schools and the “learning community” of LB 1024.

The State of New Jersey has taken over 31 school districts because achievement gaps between low-income and middle-class students were outrageously high. The districts are called “Abbott districts” because of the series of equity lawsuits, Abbott v. Burke, in the New Jersey Supreme Court.

The idea was to bring up the level of spending in the poorest districts to what is being spent in the richest ones. Spending was tripled, to the point where now more is spent per pupil in the low-income districts than elsewhere in the state. Now 21% of the state’s children go to these “equity” schools, which receive more than half of the state’s tax dollars for K-12 education.

But state attorney general Zulima V. Farber said last week that there is no evidence that some of the state-funded education programs are succeeding or that kids are better off despite millions of extra dollars being spent.

According to the report, current operations spending for K-12 education comes to about $12,000 per student per year, statewide. Spending in many Abbott districts exceeds $15,000 per student. In certain Abbott districts (such as Asbury Park and Camden), it is as high as $17,000 to $18,000 per student. Suburban districts in New Jersey spend about $10,000 to $11,000 per child. The national average is around $8,000.

Despite the extra spending, graduation rates have declined, standardized test scores are down, K-12 attendance is less, and college attendance is down. Almost none of the freshmen in high school can read at grade level. So many students drop out or graduate through alternative means in Camden and Newark that a Newark school board member, Dana Rone, figured out that the cost per academically qualified, college-enrolled, high-school graduate in those two districts is nearly $1 million.

In 1999, Douglas Coate and James VanderHoff, economics professors at Rutgers University, analyzed the state's school-finance system. According to their findings, increased spending per student had no positive effect on achievement in the state. Furthermore, when they looked specifically at the Abbott districts, they once again found no positive effect.

Where has the money gone? The story reports: “In Camden and Newark, in particular, investigators and journalists over the years have discovered new cars, fancy meals, trips to tropical places, ghost students, ghost teachers, contractor kickbacks and selling of jobs. While bureaucratic red tape forces employees to bend rules and find a friend in high places in order to get legitimate tasks done, corrupt individuals take advantage of the habitual use of back channels and disregard of rules. The state needs to cut red tape and hold local officials and school principals responsible for results. Then local officials and principals will have an incentive to clean up corruption.”


“The state has paid more attention to construction of buildings than to having tests that measure student achievement and the effectiveness of academic improvement programs. Despite the known importance of high-quality teachers, the educational establishment has blocked productivity-oriented reforms, such as pay for performance.

“What is needed in the Abbott districts is not more money, but better incentives for school districts to spend money effectively. The failures of the Abbott districts are apparent to many, but there has been no political will to do what needs to be done. The state should at a minimum do what Gov. Corzine suggests and freeze funding increases to force school districts to put in place better incentives to be more productive in terms of student academic achievement.”

The writers of the article were Bill Evers, a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and a member of its Koret task force on K-12 education, and Paul Clopton, a research statistician for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in San Diego.

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