Feature Article Highlights
Question: How do we change our state’s educational system such that we not only greatly improve the quality of education but also enable our schools to operate more cost effectively while increasing the property taxpayers’ return on investment?
Answer: The solution is to give our public schools the choice of becoming self-governing. A self-governing public school district is free of state control as well as federal intervention. An autonomous public school district would be independent of the state system but remain a public school district serving the same local community rather than a charter school or a private school or a school run in full or in part by a private company. While a public school district could elect to stay within the state system and continue to abide by all mandates, all districts should be given the opportunity to legally opt out.
Creating Self-Governing Independent Public Schools
By Stephen Coffin
Our public schools must be given the choice of becoming self-governing so that they can be free to provide a top quality educational system. A self-governing public school district is free of state control as well as federal intervention. Therefore, it would be independent of the state system but remain a public school district serving the same local community rather than a charter school or a private school or a school run in full or in part by a private company. While public school districts could elect to stay within the state system and continue to abide by all mandates, all districts should be given the opportunity to legally opt out. The ability to opt for self-governance would be supported by legislation.
Self-governance would provide public schools with the authority to improve education consistent with the priorities of their local school communities as well as the flexibility to innovate rather than be forced to march in lock-step to the state’s one size fits all mandates. Public schools choosing to opt out would be independent public schools free of all state mandates except for perhaps reporting test results but they would also forgo all state aid. Opting out of the state system would restore decision-making to the local school district level. Because decisions guiding the operations of self-governing schools would no longer be made largely at the county or state level, parents, teachers, school administrators, boards of education, and local taxpayers would be better able to shape the quality of education which their students receive in their local schools.
A public school district would become self-governing when a simple majority of the registered district voters who voted in a district-wide vote approved of the change. While these votes would comply with the laws governing ballot procedures, campaigns and elections, they would be held in April so as to provide sufficient lead time to convert to self-governance by July 1, the beginning of the new fiscal year. Once the district community voted to authorize the school district to become self-governing, it would be governed solely by its board of education. Board of education members would be chosen from among the registered voters in the school district. Municipal, county, state and federal governments would no longer play any role in the governance or management of self-governing school districts. Therefore, boards of school estimate would no longer have any role vis-à-vis appointed boards of education.
Local property tax levies rather than tuition would continue to be the primary source of funding for self-governing public school districts. Still, these districts would be eligible to receive appropriate state or federal grants. The annual operating budget and debt authorizations for a self-governing public school district would be decided by its board of education rather than be subject to district-wide public votes. Indeed, this would be consistent with the fact that the annual operating budgets of municipal, county, state and federal governments are not subject to approval through a vote of their respective electorates.
Becoming self-governing would enable a school district to operate more efficiently and cost-effectively through the exercise of many new choices. A self-governing school district would be free to choose whether to have unions. If it chooses to be union-free, it would be no longer subject to such legislative restrictions as the New Jersey Employer-Employee Relations Act which is commonly referred to as the “PERC law” (Strassman, Vogt and Wary, 1991.) If the district elected not to have unions, then all union contracts such as those with its teachers would be dissolved and renegotiated once the district became self-governing.
Free of outside governmental intrusion such as the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, the district also would be free to determine its teacher licensing requirements including training, education and experience. Because the district would no longer be subject to the New Jersey Core Curriculum Content Standards (CCCS,) it would be free to develop and determine its own curriculum. The district also would be free to determine whether or not to offer special education because the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) and state special education requirements would no longer apply. If the district chooses to provide special education, then it would have sole discretion over what level and kinds of special education it offered.
A self-governing public school district would be held harmless from frivolous lawsuits through its enabling legislation. This would help to greatly minimize escalating legal expenses. Law suits filed against the district would be heard first by one of several newly created arbitration panels. Arbitration panel members would be appointed by a newly created state-wide association of self-governing public school districts.
By changing to self-governance, a school district would be able to cut unnecessary expenses through the elimination of special education-based lawsuits with the ever increasing costs arising from such litigation. As parents have become more knowledgeable about what constitutes special education programs and services, they have increased their demands to have their children receive not only more intensive services as well as increasing their children’s classification but also more placements in private schools which have resulted in more parents suing school districts for these additional benefits. New Jersey’s legal system, however, operates according to a fee shifting principle in which a school district losing in an administrative court not only must pay all of the judgment costs but also all of the plaintiff’s legal costs including those for their attorneys and expert witnesses regardless of the length of the trial.
Litigation for special education proceedings often takes longer than civil law suits which increase legal fees and court costs. In addition, there is the cost resulting from the amount of time required of teachers, child study teams and administrators to appear in court rather than in school. While school districts do settle a number of cases rather than run the risk of potentially more expensive outcomes, these settlements fuel the cost of providing special education. Holding New Jersey school districts harmless from such law suits would be another way in which to enable school districts to allocate more of their scarce resources to student instruction.
The ever increasing cost of unfunded and under funded mandates is not only forcing school districts to cut regular education programs and, therefore, leveling down student achievement but also increasing property taxes. But New Jersey’s public school districts can no longer afford to pay for these unfunded and under funded mandates because most school districts are forced to spend disproportionately more to meet the requirements of these mandates than these districts receive in total state and federal financial aid. If local school districts opted for self-governance, therefore, they would eliminate the excessive financial and administrative burdens imposed by the county, state and federal governments.
Opting for self-governance would increase the financial resources available for the classroom because it would be much more cost effective for local school districts to provide educational programs and services without the administrative burden of state requirements. The funds that are currently used for regulatory compliance with state mandates could be redirected to improving student learning and achievement, which after all is the real mission of our schools. Changing our state’s educational system in this way would not only improve the quality of education but also increase property taxpayers’ return on investment. But Trenton continues to blame school districts for property tax increases rather than take responsibility for their role in keeping property taxes high. Instead of fully funding their mandates to reduce the property tax burden which drives up the cost of public education, Trenton focuses largely on constricting school district funding, budgets, operations and the independence of local school districts.
The state’s flawed approach is demonstrated in the new funding formula as contained in the New Jersey School Funding Reform Act (SFRA) of 2008 as well as its predecessor the Comprehensive Education Improvement and Financing Act of 1996 (CEIFA,) which caused higher property taxes and cuts in regular education. Dr. Reock, Rutgers University Professor Emeritus, studied the financial impact on school districts of the state’s failure not only to not fully enact CEIFA but also to freeze most CEIFA funding beginning with the 2002-03 school year and reached a profound conclusion (Reock, 2007.)
Based on his study (Sciarra, 2008), Dr. Reock found that “the state aid freeze caused massive under-funding of many school districts throughout the state, especially poor non-Abbott districts, and contributed to the property tax problem in the state.” Instead of fully funding the CEIFA school funding formula as required by law, the state froze financial aid to schools at their 2001-02 school year levels regardless of any increases in enrollment, rising costs as well as state and federal unfunded mandates. The shortfall was hardest on those districts that were most dependent upon state aid. During the 2005-06 school year the statewide shortfall amounted to $846 million which translated into per pupil shortfalls of $1,627 in non-Abbott DFG A and B districts, $758 in DFG C through H districts, $386 DFG I and J districts, and $188 in Abbott districts.
The impact of the CEIFA funding shortfall was minimized on the Abbott districts largely due to their “parity-plus” court mandated protection. State law forbids the budget of an Abbott district from falling below its level of the prior school year (Hu, 2006.) Furthermore, under state law, if an Abbott district increases local property taxes without a state directive to do so, it will lose a similar amount of state aid.
The CEIFA funding shortfall also caused serious imbalances between local school districts. During the 2005-06 school year Abbott districts received approximately 58% of all state financial aid while educating only 23% of New Jersey’s K to 12 student enrollment. This meant non-Abbott districts were educating 77% of New Jersey’s students with only 42% of state aid. This imbalance has continued to widen under SFRA with Abbott aid increasing to approximately 60% of all state aid or $4.64 billion. State aid reductions and the ever increasing unfunded state mandates force non-Abbott districts to balance their budgets by raising property taxes, increasing class sizes as well as cutting regular education programs and services.
As part of his statement of New Jersey Supreme Court certification in support of the Plaintiffs’ opposition to the School Funding Reform Act (SFRA) of 2008, Dr. Reock concluded (Sciarra, 2008) that “the State’s failure to fund CEIFA for the past six years directly resulted in an enormous shortfall of funding in districts across New Jersey.” He went further to state, “By 2007-08, the sixth year of the CEIFA “freeze,” the total under-funding of state aid had reached $1.326 billion annually, despite the introduction of several new, smaller aid programs.” The result was a state-driven increase in local property taxes within non-Abbott districts to make up for the shortfall.
Creating state-wide self-governing public school districts free of state control is the solution that will lead to a top quality, cost-effective educational system while Trenton continues to force local school districts to pay for its under-funded and unfunded mandates that unnecessarily increase the cost of providing education and drive up property taxes. By forcing school districts to divert necessary resources to paying for the escalating costs of the State of New Jersey’s mandates rather than investing these scarce resources in the classroom where they are needed most, the State of New Jersey harms the quality of education. Local school districts, therefore, would be able to operate more cost-effectively with lower property taxes and earn a higher rate of return on their educational investment if they became self-governing by opting out of the state system.
Hu, W., (2008) In New Jersey, System to help Poorest Schools Faces Criticism, New York Times, October 30, 2006.
Reock, E. C. Jr., (2007) Paper, Estimated Financial Impact of the ‘Freeze’ of State Aid on New Jersey School Districts, 2002-03 to 2005-06,” Institute on Education Law and Policy, Rutgers University, Newark, http:// ielp.rutgers.edu/docs/CEIFA_Reock_Final.pdf
Sciarra, D. G., (2008) Certification of Dr. Ernest C. Reock, Jr. for the Supreme Court of New Jersey in support of the Plaintiffs’ opposition to the School Funding Reform Act of 2008, Education Law Center, Newark New Jersey, http://www.edlawcenter.org/ELCPublic/elcnews_080521_ReockCertification.pdf
Strassman, E. R., Vogt, K. R., and Wary, C. S., (1991). The Public Employment Relations Law, Trenton, New Jersey: New Jersey School Boards Association.