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Few Offer Input to State Education Funding Task Force

Fort Lee High School hosted the first of just two public hearings scheduled in the state for Gov. Christie’s task force to gather public input. The mid-afternoon, weekday hearing drew a sparse crowd.

About a dozen people turned up Wednesday at for an afternoon public hearing hosted by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s seven-member Education Funding Task Force, which was seeking public input as it reviews the state’s school funding formula.

The task force, which was established by executive order in March, was charged with evaluating the use of the Free and Reduced Price School Lunch Program as a measure for “at-risk” students, exploring the viability of alternative measures and providing recommendations to address aspects of the school funding formula that are susceptible to fraud and abuse, according to state education officials.

The task force was specifically directed to consider “economically effective” measures of student poverty, “educationally sound” measures of defining at-risk students, identifying areas of the School Funding Reform Act (SFRA) that are susceptible to fraud, abuse or “outside manipulation” and making recommendations to Christie to address those abuses.

In early April, now Fort Lee Superintendent of Schools Steven Engravalle was among representatives from the public and private sectors , but he was unable to attend Wednesday’s hearing.

Secretary of Higher Education and former Acting Commissioner of Education Rochelle Hendricks, who chairs the task force, was joined Wednesday by two other members, Stern & Kilcullen partner John P. Inglesino and St. Benedict’s Prep Headmaster and Essex County Vocational and Technical Schools Board president Rev. Edwin D. Leahy.

Hendricks acknowledged Engravalle’s “contribution to the task force and his graciousness in making this facility available.”

Speakers, who were asked to submit their comments in writing as well, were limited to three minutes, and Hendricks said members of the task force would not respond or make any remarks.

“But I want to assure you that we will listen attentively,” Hendricks said. “We will review whatever comments you have; we will certainly share them with the absentee members of the task force. Everything will be given full and careful consideration.”

Only three members of the public actually got up to speak at the hearing, although several others said they had or would submit comments by email or regular mail.

Fort Lee resident David Sarnoff addressed the way the hearing was publicized, saying he only found out about it because an email had been forwarded to him.

“If you really, truly want to encourage broad public support at these meetings and input, it was very difficult to find out that this meeting existed until very shortly before it occurred,” Sarnoff said. “If there could just be more of a lead up in local media or through school district email systems, I think you would have much greater and substantive turnout.”

Teaneck resident Sarah Rappoport, a member of Save our Schools NJ, which she described as “a bipartisan grassroots organization,” did know about the meeting and came with prepared comments.

Rappoport called the “supposed significant abuse” of the Free and Reduced Lunch Program “a myth, perpetuated for political reasons, in order to undermine school funding for children living in poverty.”

She said an audit that found that 37 percent of program recipients were ineligible was inaccurate because the “majority of people who were found to be ineligible” were actually those who, for various reasons, did not respond to a letter requesting additional documents.

“So the 37 percent we have all heard so much about, which supposedly represents cheating in the Free and Reduced Lunch Program, is really 28 percent,” Rappoport concluded. “And even that 28 percent actually consists of a tiny sample of a very small group of families right on the edge of qualifying for the program, who mostly failed to send back the necessary forms.”

Offering another perspective was Fort Lee resident and former state Assembly candidate Keith Jensen, who noted that his primary focus during his campaign was the Fair School Funding Plan.

“Not a lot of people really understand that [about] 60 percent of your taxes go toward education, and of that only 20 percent stays locally,” Jensen said. “The rest of it is sent to Trenton and dispersed as they see fit, primarily to those towns and municipalities that are Abbott Districts.”

Jensen, who was successful in getting the Fort Lee Board of Education supporting “fair distribution of state aid for education” in October but has thus far been unable to persuade the Fort Lee Mayor and Council to follow suit, said that under SFRA, a “typical” school district would get slightly more than $5,000 per student “if you designate them as needing free and reduced lunch.”

“There’s an incentive for educators or administrators to qualify students to be at risk,” said Jensen, who told Patch after the meeting that he would continue to push the borough’s governing body to pass a resolution supporting Fair School Funding.

“This is nothing more than a resolution that says we don’t agree,” he said. “The lion’s share of taxes goes towards schools, but not the schools in town.”

Wednesday’s public hearing was the first of just two the Education Funding Task Force will hold in the state. A second hearing is scheduled for Tuesday, Aug. 21, at 3 p.m. in Civic Hall on the Camden Community College Blackwood Campus in Blackwood, NJ.

Comments can also be submitted via email or by regular mail to the following address:

Education Transformation Task Force, c/o Department of Education, 100 Riverview Plaza, PO Box 500, Trenton, NJ 08625.

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Martha Cohen August 16, 2012 at 02:58 AM
If they sincerely wanted thoughtful comments from the public they would: hold the meeting in the evening or on the weekend, publicize it well in advance, and not have it take place in the middle of a work day, in the last weeks of August when most families take vacation, after their kids return from camp or other excursions but before the beginning of school in September. Unfortunately, these two meetings - for the entire State - is just window dressing so they can then proceed to do whatever they want. Very sad.
Keith Jensen August 16, 2012 at 04:05 AM
Dog and Pony Show. This task force has no power when our own legislators: Weinberg, Johnson and Huttle do not vote in favor of addressing the school funding formula (which is attached below the picture in this article). Presently, the school funding formula favors Abbott Districts, of which not one of the 13 towns in their District are a part of; evident in that they do not stand up for the rights of the children and taxpayers of Fort Lee, Teaneck, Hackensack, etc.., but they agree that Hoboken is worse off than any family here in their District. More upsetting, was that not a single elected official from Fort Lee attended this meeting today in the Fort Lee High School: not the Mayor, not a person from the Council, nor any elected official from the Board of Education.. actually John Bang was there, and it would be great for him to comment here. The Governor's task force, while dispatched with good intention, has no muscle unless our own local government can get behind the people they represent. The question that remains is why our Mayor and Council will not endorse, much less openly consider executing the attached resolution?
Save Our Schools NJ August 16, 2012 at 10:03 AM
There are no Abbott districts any more. They went away when the current school funding formula was enacted four years ago. All schools in New Jersey are funded on the same formula, which provides additional funding for the most challenging and expensive-to-educate children: those with special needs, those who do not speak English; and those living in poverty. It does not matter where those children go to school. The State aid follows the child. The reason high-poverty districts receive more state aid dollars than wealthier districts is because they have a much higher number of the most challenging-to-educate children, and very little ability to raise the necessary school funding through local taxes. If you want Fort Lee to receive more school aid, you could offer to have more low-income children who live elsewhere attend Fort Lee schools. You also could push to have the State fulfill its obligation to actually fully fund the school funding formula. The Christie Administration underfunded Fort Lee schools by more than $4.5 million between 2010 and 2012 and Fort Lee schools are being shortchanged an additional $1.26 million in the 2012-13 school year. That's almost $6 million that the State owes Fort Lee and failed to pay and that Fort Lee schools could certainly have put to good use.
Julia August 16, 2012 at 10:05 AM
Suggesting that the State divide all the school aid evenly between all the districts is like saying every person should get the same amount from the State to pay for their health care, whether they need treatment for cancer or a wart; and regardless of whether they have any insurance or money with which to pay for their care. It is a terrible, regressive idea that would destroy our excellent public schools and rob the futures of hundreds of thousands of children.
Kooz Emek August 16, 2012 at 11:19 AM
So I surmise the "progressive" mindset believes that we should keep throwing disproportionately more money at these failing schools? What a joke! Public schools in Newark, Union, Camden, etc. have been receiving more of our hard earned tax $'s for over 40 years, and what are the results? Graduation rates of < 50%, and the overwhelming majority of students cannot read at grade level. Statewide test scores are just downright ugly. It's time to identify these failing schools and close them for the sake of the children in these areas and the taxpayers of NJ. Of course "progressive" organizations would find that idea preposterous because they think the problem is all about money. The 40 year track record has proven that it's not. Can you say voucher?
Julia August 16, 2012 at 11:30 AM
Mr Emek, 1) The funding per child is no greater in high poverty districts than elsewhere. They just happen to have more low-income children, so they have more of the additional funding that such children receive, wherever they live, because children living in poverty are more expensive to educate. 2) The idea that money doesn't matter is ridiculous and utterly false. New Jersey's fair funding distribution and appropriate funding levels are a big reason why we have such great public schools. 3) The idea that the funding hasn't helped in high poverty schools is false. It has. There's more on that here: http://jerseyjazzman.blogspot.com/2012/05/money-does-matter.html School funding is necessary but not sufficient. You aren't going to cure all the ills of poverty by providing adequate school funding. But if you don't provide that funding, you might as well send all of those children to jail right now. 4) If you think their schools education the majority of low-income children are failing, how about inviting the kids to go to public school in your community?
Kooz Emek August 16, 2012 at 11:55 AM
That's right Julia, disproportionate amounts of tax money in the schools in Union, Camden and Newark are just wonderful if your desired result is failure. Perhaps you feel that it's some sort of accomplishment that <50% of high school seniors graduate, and those that do are >50% functionally illiterate. Perpetuating results like this, and the waste of taxpayer money is truly "regressive". Much as they try, "progressives" cannot hide from the results.
Bruce Baker August 16, 2012 at 12:07 PM
First, what's really wrong with the design of SFRA: http://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/2011/10/22/thoughts-on-improving-the-school-funding-reform-act-sfra-in-nj/ Second, how the previous NJDOE report on SFRA was misguided: http://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/2012/02/24/how-not-to-fix-the-new-jersey-achievement-gap/ More on the previous NJDOE report: http://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/2012/02/25/student-enrollments-state-school-finance-policies/ Third, how absurd it is to allocate the same sum of state aid per pupil to each district: http://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/2011/06/23/paul-mulshine-amoral-self-indulgence-new-jersey-school-finance/ Follow up: http://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/2011/10/19/dear-mr-mulshine-please-check-your-facts/ Fourth, how the current poverty measurement may be imperfect, but remains perhaps the best available proxy: http://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/2012/08/07/poverty-counts-school-funding-in-new-jersey/
Julia August 16, 2012 at 12:15 PM
Mr. Emek, Your post simply perpetuates myths about how schools in low-income areas perform. Please link to specific data that shows school funding does not result in better educational outcomes. Even the NJ DOE's own expert witness admitted when testifying in front of the NJ Supreme Court two years ago that funding absolutely made a difference: http://blog.nj.com/njv_bob_braun/2011/02/states_star_witness_says_funds.html Arguing that funding doesn't help because children living in poverty under-perform wealthy children on test scores and graduation rates is like arguing that we should stop funding cancer treatment because more cancer patients die than those with warts. Children living in poverty have inadequate food, dangerous housing, and exposure to toxins in the daily environment. Their parents also often lack the education and time to nurture them. The idea that schools can offset all of that is ridiculous, but appropriate school funding for every child can go a long way to giving low-income children a chance.
Chana August 16, 2012 at 02:12 PM
Sarah is correct on the school lunch issues, and it has nothing to do with a "progressive" mindset. I am a public school employee who keeps up with these issues-and as it happens, I am also an Orthodox Jew with children in private yeshiva. I will offer an educated guess that Mr "Emek", judging from his name, most likely does not have an ideology, progressive or otherwise. He is likely interested in vouchers not to help students in failing public, but to use them to send his children or grandchildren to Orthodox schools. We struggle to to pay the bills like anyone else who sends their kids to private school. However, unlike Mr Emek, I actually work for urban schools, and not for a luxurious salary--in fact mine going down as a result of Christie's policies. I am actually there working with children who are poor, and for the most part they have NO academic support at home, who live ten families crowded into one house (you can argue that that is illegal--then go after the landlords who profit off them for cheap labor and rent), not the families). I agree there is a lot of waste, but vouchers and privatization do not get rid of that. Cerf seeks to close these schools in order to hand them over to for-profit entities which have poor records for helping most children--and their board salaries will come out of your pocket too, Mr. Emek.
Tracy August 16, 2012 at 03:49 PM
I wish I could have made this meeting, it suits my interests; and certainly is a hot button issue. However, I do not know if its for public comsumption at-this stage. What did it add? Please keep in mind this is one of the first steps in rectifying funding for schools. This particular task force is ONLY " charged with evaluating the use of the Free and Reduced Price School Lunch Program as a measure for “at-risk” students, exploring the viability of alternative measures and providing recommendations to address (reduced lunch)aspects of the school funding formula that are susceptible to fraud and abuse, according to state education officials." So, while important, we seem to prematurely debating the greater picture. One step at a time will resolve some of the issues discussed here, of course it will never be all, but it has to start somewhere. That being said, this task force is looking to remedy the abuse of a program that is meant to help the under priviledged children. IF the statistics are correct and hold true as the research continues, it is quite a sum of misdirected funding and could indicate other programs being abused or not using 'best practice' and accountability. Its a start and we must take small steps to audit and rebuild funded programs.
Chana August 16, 2012 at 04:12 PM
Tracy, the statistics are NOT correct, as Ms Rappoport pointed out--they are a false measure to justify cutting programs. Just because you have board members, like in Elizabeth, abusing privileges doesn't mean the system is rife with fraud. If you want to focus on abuse, focus on the fact that much of the food provided in the free meal programs is junk--we are clearly subsidizing junk food companies, not farmers, in this. The problem here is that conservatives are using alleged abuse to gut programs and turn them over to enterprises in which their buddies make money off the taxpayers. Their financial goals are neither to help poor children nor middle-class taxpayers.
Save Our Schools NJ August 16, 2012 at 04:35 PM
Tracy, you can see Sarah's entire testimony here: http://www.facebook.com/notes/save-our-schools-new-jersey/save-our-schools-nj-testimony-in-front-of-governor-christies-education-funding-t/459478924085273 It clearly explains why it's wrong to claim there is widespread cheating in the Free and Reduced lunch program. As Chana pointed out, this is being done for political reasons, to justify cutting school funding for the neediest children. Absolutely shameful!
Tracy August 16, 2012 at 09:05 PM
SOSNJ and Chana, Thank you for your feedback and new information. Your arguments are heard and I agree with much of it, however, I will trust that the taskforce is not looking to abolish but rather streamline the free and reduce lunch program, and make it better than what it is now. When I taught, I saw kids who should have been on the program (I took it upon myself to feed those students and their siblings) and I also saw kids who were clearly taking advantage of the opportunity. So there is the old saying, where there smoke, there is fire--- this is the first of many program corrections that need to be made. And I agree about the quality of food--- its better than it was even a year ago but lacks a wholesomeness that I look for as a parent; I do not utilize the cafeteria food service at the request of my children. New regulations are guiding that back into a minimally acceptable quality. I hope that the taskforce may have reach into the quality as well, but I am not sure of what their impact could be in that area.
Chana August 16, 2012 at 09:21 PM
That is true, Tracy, there are new federal guidelines, aren't there? The question is, will they be enforced, or will the type and provision of food depend on the politically connected. Simply, there is no reason to trust this task force, given its record on gutting education. They go around using faulty statistics in the process, and ignoring those, like Bruce Baker's, which are credible and professional. As teachers, we see waste every day. Nothing Christie has done has helped curb that waste--except to transfer money into the hands of their allies. You and I, as teachers, have the best of motives, but we are not the political players here.
Rona August 17, 2012 at 01:19 AM
Who cares in Fort Lee & the surrounding towns anyway?
Tracy August 17, 2012 at 01:50 AM
I do. there are many people in Ft Lee who care about our children.....
Deca August 18, 2012 at 02:12 AM
Thank you Professor Baker for consistently providing the data and analysis necessary to combat these destructive, segregative, and unfair policy proposals. All of us fighting for excellent public education are deeply in your debt.
Deca August 18, 2012 at 02:33 AM
Chana, your comments are insightful. I hope if you not yet, you will join Save our Schools NJ. www.saveourschoolsnj.org We are working together to defend public education from exactly what is happening that you describe so accurately.
Matt August 29, 2012 at 08:49 PM
Meh.... none of these "academics" have ever considered there's a point of diminishing returns. They say "Look, if we spend 25K per student, their scores improve" with no mention that if they'd spent $20K per pupil, there scores would not drop that much either. What's most pitiful is that the same self serving industry that pushed for more money never put in proper tracking of whether the results were heading in the right direction. But in the end, I think we need to look to what the experts say. http://www.tc.columbia.edu/news.htm?articleID=7240 And I quote, "Gordon MacInnes, a fellow at the Century Foundation who oversaw implementation of the Abbott decisions as Assistant Commissioner at the New Jersey Department of Education from 2002 to 2007, delivered a mixed assessment. The gap in “life chances” between poor and middle-class and wealthy students in New Jersey and across the nation is “still substantial,” he said. “When you get to middle school, eighth grade, high school – forget about it. This has been a huge failure.” So Abbott is great, until you become older than a fourth grader. So pathetic.

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