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Laura Waters

Why Gov. Chris Christie's 'Fairness Formula' Is Anything But Fair

When Chris Christie announced his state school aid “ Fairness Formula” last week—one that would flat-fund state aid to all students, regardless of economic status, at $6,599 per year—many commentators, myself included, ascribed his reactionary and racist plan to a kind of Trump-induced infection activated by the governor’s flailing political career. But it’s not that simple. It’s worse. If Christie’s intended reallocation of state school aid was merely the detritus of a desperate leader glamored by the orange charlatan—sprung from pique at his political demise, his transformation from rock star to laughing stock—then we could all roll our eyes and look away. But we can’t, because Christie’s intrinsically unfair “fairness” plan is a symptom not just of his own dissolution but of a more expansive grievance, shared by those of multiple political persuasions and economic circumstances, towards American failures to improve publicly funded services and, more specifically, public education. Christie is tapping into a zeitgeist that manifests itself in a startling expansion of the politics of resentment. Leon Wieseltier, in a wonderful editorial in the Washington Post, calls this grudge-colored furor a new “politics of grievance” that infects those who identify as the White working class. (We also see this beyond America’s borders in, for example, Britain’s Brexit). Wieseltier reflects that Trump “would be nowhere, and we would not be facing a grave historical crisis” without his popularity among White, working-class voters:
These downtrodden demand sympathy, and they deserve sympathy, but they do not give sympathy. They kindle, in the myopia of their pain, to racism and nativism and xenophobia and misogyny and homophobia and anti-Semitism. They swoon over an ignorant thug who promises to deport 11 million immigrants from a country built by immigration and to close the borders of a religiously free country to an entire religion.
With apologies to Yeats, the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity.

Closer to Home

Bringing it back to my home state, Christie’s proposal to overturn decades of court-ordered compensatory state aid school funding to poor kids represents its own politics of grievance because decades of profligate state aid (e.g., poster child Asbury Park Public Schools at $33,109 per student per year and dismal results) has mostly failed to reinvigorate the traditional public education sector. Under Christie’s plan, 85 percent of White suburban students would receive more state aid than they do now. One example is Glen Rock Public Schools in Bergen County—with a student population that is 4 percent Black and Hispanic and less than 1 percent low-income—would see its state aid increase by 1,314 percent—from $460 per pupil now to more than $6,000. Conversely, 60 percent of Black students, 55 percent of Hispanic students, and 57 percent of students who qualify for free-and-reduced lunch would receive less aid—significantly less state aid—than they do now. Newark’s aid would drop by 69 percent, Camden’s by 78 percent, Asbury Park’s by 77 percent. Christie’s proposal is so radical that it would require a constitutional amendment that, after approval of the legislature, would appear on the ballot in November 2017. Unlikely, right? But there’s this: if it did make it onto the ballot—and otherwise respectable Republican lawmakers are lining up to endorse the plan—it may have higher odds of achieving plurality than one would like to think.

The Antic Roadshow

Christie says he’s ready to spend his last 18 months in office promoting his plan through town halls, venues where his signature blustery charm plays especially well. Most likely he’ll carefully target residents in townships where his proposal has vast appeal, i.e., communities that are crushed (or at least inconvenienced) by New Jersey’s sky-high property tax rate, debt load of $153.5 billion, and sluggish job market. It’s this spirit of anger and resentment (which, as Wieseltier points out, also animates Bernie supporters, although through a different dynamic) that leaves liberals like me gobsmacked by the epiphany that millions of American voters—millions!—support a deranged and narcissistic Republican presidential nominee. Yet in relatively progressive and prosperous New Jersey, some residents sneer just as mean-spiritedly at the state’s long history of sending compensatory funding to poor communities. As a school board member in a middle-class, inner-ring suburb of Trenton, I hear this all the time. Wieseltier’s framework is a tad too narrow. Christie is counting on the support not just from working-class white voters but also those with abundant bottom lines who live in wealthy suburbs and are aggrieved by the state’s largesse towards poor urban school districts. New Jersey, best intentions aside, has failed to provide access to high-functioning traditional schools for many of the state’s impoverished students, many of whom are Black and Hispanic. Christie is right about this. Once rich districts spent much more per pupil than poor districts, although the latter received some aid to compensate for lower tax bases. In a lawsuit called Abbott v. Burke in 1990, the state Supreme Court ruled that this disparity betrayed New Jersey’s constitutional promise of a “thorough and efficient education” for all students and that the state must more generously supplement per pupil costs in 28 poor urban school districts (later expanded to 31) so that no “Abbott” district spent less per pupil than New Jersey’s wealthiest districts. The legislature has dutifully passed a variety of school funding formulas that attempt to equalize spending and academic outcomes (free full-day preschool, wrap-around services, facilities upgrades). The latest formula, the 2008 School Funding Reform Act, attempted to remedy the obsolete Abbott construction—poor students now live throughout New Jersey, not just in 31 districts—but just about everyone (except teachers union leaders and Education Law Center, the advocacy group that represented the plaintiffs in Abbott) agrees that the formula is profligate and unsustainable. What do we know? Money is necessary to improve student achievement but money without accountability and reform is insufficient to breach that wall that separates too many poor kids from quality schools.

Chance Charterization

Some suspect that Christie’s endgame is a vast expansion of charter schools, often cited as one way to breach another wall, New Jersey’s stalwart allegiance to local control of schools and residential borders. While details of his proposal remain thin, he alludes to exceptions for these alternative public schools. But the charter community in New Jersey rejects this “Fairness Formula” too. Muhammed Akil, head of the charter lobbying group Parent Coalition for Excellent Education (PC2E), told the Star-Ledger:
It would be saying that some schools are more important than others…charter school leaders reject that idea.
If the “Fairness Formula” ever makes it onto a ballot, I hope that most New Jerseyans would control their grievances and reject Christie’s plan. But I’m less sure than I used to be.
Laura Waters
Laura Waters writes about New Jersey and New York education policy and politics. As the daughter of New York City educators and parent of a son with special needs, she writes frequently about the need to listen to families and ensure access to good public school options for all. She is based in New Jersey, where she and her husband have raised four children. She recently finished serving 12 years ...

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