Christie's school funding plan could sink our urban districts | Opinion

By Star-Ledger Guest Columnist
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on August 17, 2016

By Richard Muti

Gov. Chris Christie's "Fairness Formula" for public education funding plays upon the frustrations and anxieties of property tax-weary suburbanites like the song of the Sirens played upon the ears of ancient Greek sailors. If listened to, it will surely lead our ship of state onto rocky shoals as perilous as those that threatened Odysseus and his men in Homer's immortal tale.

Most of us plowed through "The Odyssey" in high school, when we were too young, perhaps, to appreciate its poetic beauty and universal truths. One part I do remember is the episode of the Sirens, who called out to mariners traversing a narrow sea passage and lured them, powerless to resist, to their demise on the jagged coast. Odysseus wanted to hear their song, but not at the expense of his ship and crew. He ordered his men to lash him securely to the mast, and then to fill their ears with wax so they could continue to sail their ship through the dangerous waters.

We don't know what enchanting lyrics those mystical nymphs of old sang to entice men to abandon all logic and good sense, but if one were to contemplate their modern-day equivalent, the song might go something like this:

Who cares if the constitution says "thorough and efficient,"
It's not my leadership that has been deficient.
Time to let kids in Newark and Camden and Asbury Park
Navigate their own way out of the dark.
Come to me now if you've had your fill,
and save thousands off your property tax bill.

Not exactly Grammy-winning caliber, I concede. But in effect, this is Christie's siren song. He points to ineffectual spending in the 31 so-called Abbott school districts â�� those poorer urban districts the New Jersey Supreme Court ordered in 1990 to get extra state funding â�� but he takes no responsibility for the poor performance in those districts. After six and a half years as governor, it is his administration and the state Legislature that have failed to solve the problems inherent in those schools, while throwing money down the same bottomless pit.

The number most frequently trotted out by Christie and his surrogates is the $33,000 in state aid per student going to the Asbury Park school district, which has a graduation rate of just 66 percent. Most other Abbott districts get more than $20,000 per student, with similarly poor results, compared with the level of state aid going to much better performing suburban and rural districts â�� often less than $500 per student.

Something is clearly wrong, but to suddenly deprive most urban districts of two-thirds of their funding, without their ability to increase local property taxes to make up the difference, is equally wrong and will result in massive layoffs of teachers and other staff members, doubling of class sizes and, irrefutably, even poorer performance. Making matters worse, the governor's proposal is political pandering in its most egregious form.

Yes, the Supreme Court ordered the state to increase funding to the Abbott districts, but that order was intended as a stopgap measure until the Legislature and governor came up with a more workable solution â�� something every governor since Christine Todd Whitman has failed to do.

"Funding alone will not achieve the constitutional mandate of an equal education in these poorer urban districts, " the court wrote. "Without educational reform, the money may accomplish nothing; and ... in these districts, substantial, far-reaching change in education is absolutely essential to success. The proofs compellingly demonstrate that the traditional and prevailing educational programs in these poorer urban schools were not designed to meet and are not sufficiently addressing the pervasive array of problems that inhibit the education of poorer urban children. Unless a new approach is taken, these schools â�� even if adequately funded â�� will not provide a thorough and efficient education."

We don't need to stuff our ears with wax to resist Christie's despicable call to our baser instincts.

What we need is elected leaders who will work toward equitable solutions to these problems, without pitting one class of residents against another and without succumbing to the pressure of special interests. Unfortunately, leaders like that are rare.

Richard Muti is a former mayor of Ramsey, his hometown, and a former assistant Bergen County prosecutor. His sixth book â�� "Cent'Anni: The Sinatra Legend at 100" â�� was published in November.

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