Paterson, New Jersey’s public schools would be a sterling example for school reformers, if only they didn’t ignore the need to address the difficult issues of equitable funding that plague public education across the country. In 1989, according to the New York Times, Paterson was “one of four poor-performing districts that were taken over by the state…after officials determined that the school systems had fallen into educational bankruptcy with dismally low test scores and poor high school graduation rates.” But now, a lack of sufficient funding in an economically distressed community threatens to wipe away any educational benefits and send the district backwards.
Recent outcomes are impressive: “Almost 85 percent of students graduate from high school, up from a 46 percent graduation rate 10 years ago. The positive trajectory comes despite the high number of children from families that are below the poverty level; 97 percent of Paterson’s students qualify for free or subsidized school lunches.” Yet funding remains a devastating problem, as the district seeks to close an almost-$50-million budget deficit for the next school year.
Last week, district leaders put forward the final pieces of their budget-balancing plans, calling for cutting 150 teachers, 23 vice principals, teacher aides, and counselors, as well as art and music classes. The budget also calls for larger class sizes and deferred textbook updates. School Board President Oshin Castillo described the pain of the decisions the board must consider to the Paterson Times: “We saw growth. We saw art and music. We saw laptops. We saw the idea of science labs, not built to be fancy, but so that our kids could operate and experiment just like any other school district…This year, a lot of that growth is going away because of the funding.”
New Jersey does support public education well, ranking fifth among states in per-pupil spending. Paterson reports that per-pupil spending at the 25,000-student district exceeds $15,000. However, the superintendent of Paterson’s school district, Eileen Shafer, tells the Times that part of the challenge is that much of the funding the district does get from the state is directed to charter schools. This, Shafer contends, means that students in the rest of the city’s schools “get scraps.” Of course, this challenge of resources being shifted to charter schools has also been prominent in California; curbing their growth was a leading demand of teacher strikes earlier this year in both Oakland and Los Angeles.
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The dilemma that New Jersey and Paterson share is rooted in the national problem of finding a way to equitably fund schools in poor communities and effectively integrate charter schools into the educational mix, issues NPQ has been following:
State policymakers are struggling with the politics of creating funding systems that target funds to districts with the greatest challenges. Finding new funding raises the specter of higher taxes… what’s needed are revised formulas that risk asking some districts to take a smaller share of school funding so needier districts can be brought up to par.
Economically challenged communities like Paterson can’t increase local taxes to make up for state and federal funding shortfalls without raising rates for the city’s mostly low-income residents to levels that they cannot afford. While Paterson’s school board authorized a 14 percent increase in its property tax rates, that wasn’t enough to fill the budget gap. The board also approved a resolution directing the superintendent to seek more state funds for the district.
School districts face a bind. When students leave district schools for charters, they take funding with them, but they often leave costs behind. As Shafer put it, “Our children don’t come in little cases of 24, because if they did, we could eliminate a teacher, maybe we could eliminate a building—and gas, electric, and heat. But that’s not how it works. A couple of children from each school or different grades go to charter schools. So, there’s no savings for us.”
It’s the students who remain in the public district who end up paying the price when state and national officials cannot fix these problems. After praising his teachers, Christopher Capellan, 16, told the Times he feared what might happen if the proposed budget is adopted. “For students, it’s not going to be good.”—Martin Levine