Friday, June 24, 2016

The Unintended Consequences of Governor Christie's Funding Reform

Governor Christie's plan to equalize state funding in education will have an enormous impact on funding in our urban schools. The plan is clearly appealing to suburban taxpayers (and voters), and illustrates the anemic strength of urban areas in the political landscape at the State level. I can only speculate whether there is a hidden intent to this proposal- that it is subterfuge to fatally exposing these districts to the growing number of charter schools (and by extension their political clout)- but the resulting financial strain will require that difficult decisions be made on both sides of the ledger.

But besides the fairly obvious intent of this proposal to reduce suburban property taxes, a more onerous and problematic unintended consequence of this proposal will be to "handcuff" urban districts from making what I believe to be one of the more important changes they can bring to inner city education: incentivizing young middle class professional families from moving into our urban areas.

In the last decade their has been a nationwide trend in this direction. Among the features deemed most attractive to these young couples and young families is the relatively lower property tax burden found in the cities. Similarly, urban centers like Trenton, Camden, etc.. could have created property tax based incentives to attract this important demographic, possibly tying a tax abatement or lower tax to a commitment sending their kids to the public schools. Let me be blunt: for urban districts to succeed, they will require an influx of middle class families and their children into their schools. Socioeconomic diversity is not just a good thing for urban schools, it is an essential thing.

I know this is an uncomfortable issue for alot of people, but there is such a thing as "middle class" values, and the more pervasive they are in a community the more likely that community is to being economically and socially stable. The impact on inner city schools would likewise be dramatic. Parents are more likely to advocate for their kids. Teachers are more likely to design curricula that is "student empowering" and performance expectations will rise. Additional resources will find a way into a school's academic and co-curricular activities. I'm not saying it is right that this is "how it goes," but this IS how it goes.

If anything, today's urban districts need more fiscal flexibility so that they can innovate and hopefully improve their schools. I realize that most urban areas do not have a good track record for showing significant academic innovation and improvement, but I think that a lot of that has to do with the high level of "interference" by the State DOE and its performance based mandates and curriculum requirements.

There is so much to do in our urban communities if we are ever going to see real improvement in student performance. The Governor's proposal makes a political calculation that suburban families will reward his Party for this gift of  lower  property taxes.He is undoubtedly fully aware of the impact his plan will have on our urban districts, not just in their ability to provide essential services and resources to their children, but in their ability to use the local tax code to "reset" the urban demographic. This supposedly unintended consequence may have the most dire consequences of all, and, suffice to say, I bet no one gave it a moments thought.