Taxation and Distribution for Trenton, New Jersey Schools
What are the various sources of tax money received by your district?
According to the Trenton Public Schools’ annual Budget & Salary / Compensation Transparency Reporting, the district receives funding from the following sources:
Total Funding: $34,348,000
Local Funding: $12,570,000
State Funding: $20,149,000
Federal Funding: $1,629,000
The $1.6 million in federal funding is comprised of $259,000 from Title I, and $204,000 from the Child Nutrition Act, among other grants and subsidy programs. The $20.1 million in state funding is comprised largely of a $17.9 million allocation from the state’s general funding formula. Of the $12.5 million in local funding collected by Trenton Public Schools, $10.8 million is derived from property taxes, with nearly $450,000 obtained from the sale of school lunches. The district also received $364,000 from other school districts with surplus funding, $183,000 in private donations from philanthropists and charitable organizations, and $142,000 from district activity receipts.
2.) How are these dollars distributed to each school? What is the allocation strategy used to determine which school receives what?
Despite a historical reputation as one of the most well funded state educational systems in the nation, New Jersey has traditionally supported its school districts through the collection and distribution of property taxes. According to the New Jersey Department of Education, prior to the landmark decision rendered in the case of Robinson v. Cahill in 1973, “New Jersey’s public education system was afflicted by two glaring inequities: (1) public schools relied heavily — indeed, almost exclusively — on local property taxes for funding, with the result that property-rich districts dramatically outspent property-poor districts on a per-pupil basis; and (2) economically advantaged students dramatically out-achieved their less affluent peers” (Cerf, 2012). Today, however, a complex system known as the School Funding Reform Act (SFRA) formula relies on enrollment information and demographic data to calculate the level of funding allocated to each school district in New Jersey during the upcoming fiscal year. The continually adjusted combination of coefficients, costs, and weights that comprise the SFRA formula are intended to identify school districts which are in need of increased funding, as well as those that are fortunate enough to have generated a surplus, and institute a balancing act whereby the level of funding is equalized. While funding formulas like SFRA “were often initiated in response to legal action that claimed inequities existed in funding across school districts, because without such programs wealthier districts had more resources for education than did poorer districts” (Toutkoushian & Michael, 2008), years after its implementation in New Jersey there is evidence that these inequalities cannot be adequately addressed simply through mathematics alone.
3.) Identify and describe whether allocation of resources and student outcomes are in alignment.
While the SFRA allocation is undoubtedly an improvement over the discriminatory funding practices of prior generations, many impartial observers have noted that although SFRA “was proposed to create an equitable formula for calculating reductions in school aid provided to each district … Most of the New Jersey School districts that will be eligible to receive up to the $600 million in state aid available have general property tax rates that range between 2% – 3%” (Crawford, Sabrin, & Tuneva, 2010). As with any government program, the contentious political process can often poison even the most admirably inspired efforts, and although New Jersey legislators have joined Governor Chris Christie in a campaign to increase funding for the state’s ailing school districts, their voting records on other issues betray their true intentions. By engaging in the provincial favoritism no so common in Congress and among state legislatures, New Jersey lawmakers have exploited the current economic crisis to pass property tax hikes in the name of preserving the quality of education delivered to New Jersey students.
Budget cuts forced New Jersey to cut 100% of its state-allocated SFRA funding to 59 school districts across the state, but as many observers have rightfully pointed out, “twenty-seven of the school districts losing all their state funding are located in Bergen County … (and) these districts are viewed as wealthy districts with high per capita income ranging between $70,000 and $300,000” (Crawford, Sabrin, & Tuneva, 2010). These historically affluent districts also have the state’s lowest property tax rates, meaning the effort to provide higher-quality education to low-income students has leveled the proverbial playing field in the most ineffective way imaginable, assuring that the vast majority of New Jersey students will receive an equalized level of substandard education. The results of study conducted to determine the correlation between taxation and targeted allocation of funds to improve student outcomes concluded that “the results suggest that a flypaper effect seems to be present so that property taxes did not fall dollar for dollar when income taxes were raised, and are likely to rise significantly less than dollar for dollar when income taxes are cut” (Goodspeed, 1998). Simply put, the SFRA formula as it is currently employed simply forces the state’s school districts to pass the buck on to their neighbors, by manipulating their tax rates to tilt the funding formula in their favor.
4.) Provide at least three recommendations for district allocation of monies and/or resources to improve achievement of student outcomes.
Under the current SFRA funding allocation scheme, the per-pupil baseline level is typically established at a higher point for districts that are home to more low-income or at-risk students, with the objective being to achieve a state of vertical equity. While this lofty goal is indeed admirable, the SFRA funding formula has proven to be inefficient and ineffective in accomplishing New Jersey’s overriding educational priorities. According to a comprehensive review of school funding formulas and their effect on the efficacy of state educational systems, programs like SFRA “specify the shares of total revenues that are to be paid from state and local sources, with the local share determined by applying a common property-tax rate across communities … (so) in this way, the dollars received by a district for basic education operations are in direct proportion to its size, and wealthier communities no longer have more education resources than poorer communities” (Toutkoushian & Michael, 2008). This concept of taking from the fortunate and redistributing resources to students in need, while premised on the noble notion of equalizing educational opportunities for all students, has regrettably had the opposite effect. Rather than ensure equal access to high-quality educational services, innovative instruction, and the wealth of extracurricular opportunities provided by a thriving school district, New Jersey’s students have been provided with equal access to an overburdened and underfunded schooling system that is more akin to a bureaucracy than an institution of learning.
In order to mitigate the negative effects of the prolonged economic slump, New Jersey lawmakers have devised a series of severe budget cuts intended to reduce waste and inefficiency while retaining the educational system’s fundamental ability to equip children for the next level in life. Among the maneuvers made by New Jersey’s government apparatus, in an attempt to preserve the integrity of its educational delivery, were “a reduction in staff in the New Jersey Department of Education and elimination of certain program (like) the stimulus package of $1.057 billion that the school districts received this year” (Crawford, Sabrin, & Tuneva, 2010). While these actions were necessary in the short-term, they do nothing to address the systemic flaws in New Jersey’s school funding formula, which is why the following recommendations may be useful as the process of reforming and refining SFRA continues.
1.) Adjust the SFRA formula to be based on an individual school district’s average daily attendance, rather than the arbitrary single-count day of October 15th. By making this seemingly minor revision to the SFRA formula, low-income and at-risk school districts, which are historically known to suffer from lower attendance rates, can be encouraged to implement attendance-encouragement policies throughout the duration of the school year, rather than rigging the system by making sure students show up only on a predetermined date.
2.) Consider implementing a tax which targets tourists and visitors to New Jersey, with the funds being directly allocated to school districts in the state. A hotel and lodging tax, or a sporting ticket tax, if relatively minor and unobtrusive, could easily bridge the gap between New Jersey’s stated educational goals, and the funding capacity necessary for their achievement.
3.) Provide attainable goals for students so that the level of educational outcomes is dependent on their drive, ambition, and talent, rather than on the decree of an anonymous lawmaker in Trenton. When the education of an entire generation of students is contingent upon a Congressional body that has become synonymous with futility, we should not be basing the schooling of our children on funding formulas and tax rates.
Cerf, C.D. New Jersey Department of Education, (2012). Education funding report. Retrieved from State of New Jersey website: http://www.nj.gov/education/stateaid/1213/report.pdf
Crawford, C., Sabrin, M., & Tuneva, E. (2010). Property Taxes in New Jersey: Are Homeowners Paying for School Districts at Disproportionate Ratesâ€¦Is There Equity in New Jersey. Northeast Business & Economic Association, Morristown, New Jersey.
Goodspeed, T.J. (1998). The relationship between state income taxes and local property taxes: education finance in New Jersey. National Tax Journal, LI (2), 219-238.
Trenton Public Schools, New Jersey Department of Education, (2012). Budget & salary / compensation transparency reporting. Retrieved from Trenton Public Schools website: http://www.trentonschools.com/index.aspx?folder=382&school=1
Toutkoushian, R.K., & Michael, R.S. (2008). The impacts of school funding formula modifications on equity, fiscal neutrality, and adequacy. Journal of Education Finance, 33(4), 352-380.
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