|6-2-12 NJ School report cards, spending costs, released|
Star Ledger - N.J. school report cards, spending costs, released by state education department..."Amid the ongoing debate about how to fund New Jersey's schools, the state Department of Education yesterday released its annual state School Report Card, a collection of district-by-district data that includes new numbers on how much districts are spending on each student..."
Star Ledger - N.J. school report cards, spending costs, released by state education department
Published: Friday, June 01, 2012, 7:06 AM Updated: Friday, June 01, 2012, 9:52 AM
TRENTON— Amid the ongoing debate about how to fund New Jersey's schools, the state Department of Education yesterday released its annual state School Report Card, a collection of district-by-district data that includes new numbers on how much districts are spending on each student.
But the revised numbers raise new questions about how much it costs to educate a student in New Jersey.
The total per-pupil costs now include, for the first time, such items as debt service for school construction projects; federal funds; and state payments on behalf of districts for pension, Social Security and health care costs for retired teachers.
Until this year, those expenditures were not factored in when calculating the per pupil rate.
The average total statewide per-pupil cost is now $17,469 for the 2010-11 school year, the most recent data available.
Using the new formula, the state also revised spending figures for the 2009-10 school year, which increased districts’ average total per pupil cost by $2,166 between the old calculation and the new.
Nearly every district saw its total per-pupil cost increase and in some districts, the change was dramatic: In Newark, the cost rose by $5,542.
The per-pupil cost is important, placing a price tag on children’s education and helping drive debate on the use of taxpayer money.
State officials said the changes were in line with a new "Taxpayer’s Guide to Education Spending" created last year, which Gov. Chris Christie said was intended to include "the total amount actually spent for students in preschool through grade 12.
Many school officials said the changes in methodology were unfair and misleading.
Jim O’Neill, interim superintendent in Roxbury, called the changes "disingenuous," saying the state "wants to continually make it look like districts are not respectful of expending public funds, and that’s not the case."
David Sciarra, executive director of the Newark-based Education Law Center, which advocates on behalf of urban students, called the data "patently wrong and misleading.
"The Christie Administration will do just about anything to promote the myth we spend too much to educate our children," he said.
But since the new report cards also include recalculated cost figures from the two preceding years, they also show that in an apples-to-apples calculation, spending on students actually went down between 2009-10, and 2010-11.
That was the year Christie slashed school spending by about $1 billion, resulting in cuts to school staff and programs in many districts across the state.
The data shows the impact of those cuts. The total per-pupil cost dropped 2.3 percent from 2009-10 to 2010-11. The biggest percentage cut — 8.5 percent — occurred in extracurriculars. Many districts cut things such as middle school sports programs, or began charging "user fees" for kids to join clubs or appear in plays.
Support services, which includes guidance, librarians and nurses, saw the second biggest reduction, of 5 percent.
Christie has long argued the state spends too much on public education in many of its urban districts, where academic performance lags far behind suburban districts that receive less state aid. He often is critical of the spending in Newark and Asbury Park, which spend among the highest amount per pupil in the state.
Under the new methodology, total per pupil spending in Newark rose from $17,515 to $23,057 for the 09-10 academic year. Spending in Asbury Park rose $7,324, to $29,819.
Some school leaders welcomed the change. Janine Caffrey, superintendent of schools in Perth Amboy, said helping the public understand the real financial cost of school districts is a "positive move."
"We have enough money to do everything we need for our students," she said. "It’s up to us to use that money in a way that improves achievement."
The school report cards also include "snapshot" information such as average class size, the length that students in each school spend in class, and SAT scores, but a key focus is always the funding piece of the puzzle.
The release of the revamped numbers highlights another fact about schools: Funding is complicated and difficult to understand.
Charles Maranzano, superintendent of schools in Hopatcong, said he worries the public will not understand the sudden shift in school funding methodology and will unfairly blame his district for increased costs. If the methodology is changed too often, he added, the public will lose trust in the data.
"This finance data is so fraught with complexity that it can make it hard for the public to fully understand what’s being reported to them, and this confusion builds mistrust," Maranzano said. "We should be celebrating the accomplishments of our public schools given the challenges we face, not oversimplifying the numbers for the sake of comparison."
Assembly Education Committee Chairman Patrick Diegnan said the most basic premise of reliable data is putting the same variables into the formula, and the Christie Administration has "done the opposite," he said.
"For the governor to add new factors into this calculation and inflate the numbers results in a totally unreliable outcome," Diegnan said. "He is exaggerating the numbers, trying to make it seem like we spend too much on our children. I don’t believe it."
Star-Ledger staff writer Eric Sagara contributed to this report.
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