Archive for the ‘enrollment’ Category

How State Dominated Educational Systems Level Down Accountability and Increase Costs

Monday, January 3rd, 2011


The United States Constitution bestows plenary authority to govern education on the states rather than the federal government.  Accordingly, in the American governmental system all the powers of local governments including county governments and school districts are derived from the state.  Whatever authority the state grants to local governments, and, therefore, to local school districts, the state also can withdraw or modify.  

Still, the tradition of local control is rooted in our democratic principles.  It also symbolizes our democracy in action.  Local control enables a local school system to be accountable to its constituents rather than being controlled remotely by a governmental entity that imposes its political agenda which is incongruent with local priorities and needs.  Remote governing bodies, such as county or state governments, therefore, are not as accountable to the standards necessary to provide quality education as are local schools.  

A top-down, state dominated educational system is contrary to our democratic principles and traditions especially when it comes to the governance of our schools.  Increased control by the state through state politically appointed county departments of education, such as in New Jersey and California, means less local control because control is a zero sum game.  As such, every increase in or recapture of state or county power can only result from a corresponding loss at the local level.  

Special attention is given to the states of New Jersey and California because they embody the problems associated with state domination of local school systems as executed through the level of county government.  During recent decades, the cherished home rule tradition of school governance in New Jersey and California was eroded to the point where local control of education has been largely superseded by the state and its extension, county government.   

The rising power of the states of New Jersey and California (Fusarelli and Cooper, 2009) grew from the states’ increasing domination of school finance and, therefore, policy making because of the strings the states attached to funding.  Legal challenges to funding inequities and disparities led to court decisions, such as Serrano v. Priest in California and Abbott v. Burke in New Jersey, establishing financial neutrality as the basis for school funding.  The states tried to remedy the disparities among districts with the infusion of incremental state funds and regulation.  

Subsequent rulings focused on adequacy which required state governments to provide resources to disadvantaged districts such that the provision of education adequately met their constitutional requirements.  New Jersey’s state constitution went even further because of its provisions guaranteeing a thorough and efficient education or a “T&E” education as it became known and manifested in the Abbott v. Burke court decision. 

Legal challenges to subsequent state funding formulas such as law suits to address financial inequities and tax base disparities have caused states to greatly increase taxes so as to generate the necessary funds with which to offset the inequalities.  Nowhere is this more predominant than in the New Jersey and California.  

But greatly increased state taxes and spending have led to corresponding increases in state regulation of local school districts so as to enable states to better control the use of state educational aid.  This, in turn, has led to exponential increases in state mandates for administrative regulation, program requirements, standards, and budgetary controls.  Naturally, as state mandates and control over local schools increased, the size of state and county bureaucracies increased with a corresponding increase in the costs being passed on to local school districts.   

The rise in the power of the state has paralleled the increase in the state’s control over public education finance.  The transformation of the state’s educational finance system to a more centralized model has resulted in a corresponding loss of control by the local taxpayer over educational policy, programs, and services.  More importantly, it has greatly decreased the ability of local citizens as well as the state government to hold schools accountable for educational performance.  

County government (Fischel, 2009) is the entity through which states have traditionally executed their authority. But County government, as the implementation arm of the state, is too distant from the provision of education as well as the educational needs and priorities of local communities to be able to hold local schools accountable. 


Historically, the American system for organizing school districts has employed two major models based on traditional political boundaries:  counties and townships.  Every state except Hawaii employs one of these models or a combination as the basis for organizing its schools.  Hawaii is the only statewide school district in the nation and its public schools are 100% financed by the state.  

The settlers of New England (Fischel, 2009) established the township as the political unit within which school districts were organized and this model spread westward.  The Mid-Atlantic and Southern states, however, have generally used the county as the organizing structure for local schools.  Indeed, schools in the states (Kenney and Schmidt, 1994, cited in Fischel, 2009) of Maryland, Florida, West Virginia and Louisiana are organized into consolidated countywide districts without individual school districts.  For example, (Fischel, 2009, pp. 165-166) “the city of Baltimore is considered a county district in Maryland and is distinct from adjacent, suburban “Baltimore County”; each is a separate (county) school district.”  

New Jersey

While such court decisions as Robinson v. Cahill and Abbott v. Burke fundamentally changed the state’s role in education in New Jersey, recreating the office of the Executive County Superintendent of Schools as well as the passage of S1701 into law were similarly profound in their far reaching impact on New Jersey’s school system.  Because using property taxes as the primary basis for funding local school districts is inextricably linked to home rule, these actions transcended local taxpayers’ rights to determine the financial and human resources allocations of their local schools.  More importantly, these court rulings and laws directly affected local taxpayers’ democratic rights. 

Office of the Executive County Superintendent

When New Jersey Governor Corzine signed the CORE Act, CommUNITY Against Regionalization Efforts (2009), Assembly Bill A4 and Senate Bill S19, into law, he transformed the role of county superintendents of education from mere disseminators of state educational policies into powerful Executive County Superintendent of Schools.  In so doing, the governor empowered each Executive County Superintendent to begin consolidating all schools into K to 12 districts and ultimately to consolidate all schools within one countywide organization.  Indeed, passage of the pending New Jersey Senate bill (New Jersey Department of Education 2010), S450, would eliminate all local school administrators over the level of principal and establish the Executive County Superintendent as the official who will govern and operate all public schools within the consolidated countywide district. 

The Executive County Superintendent is a political appointee whose contract calls for him/her to focus on maximizing the reduction of expenses in all of the schools within the county rather than on improving student and school achievement.  These political appointees are empowered to veto local school district budgets despite their previous approval by their duly elected local board of education as well as any contracts for vendors or school personnel not covered by a collective bargaining agreement.  Also, they have unilateral authority to scale down, postpone, or eliminate any non-mandate protected program or service.  

New Jersey gave the Executive County Superintendent unprecedented powers over local school districts through the office of Executive County Superintendent of Schools.  These county superintendents have the authority to put New Jersey well on its way to duplicating Maryland’s centralization of power over local school districts at the county level.  Indeed, the Executive County Superintendents have the authority to consolidate all of New Jersey’s 600 plus school districts serving more than 1.3 million students statewide within one of 21 countywide districts.  

By creating the office of Executive County Superintendent of Schools, New Jersey moved to the verge of replicating the state of Maryland’s county school system model.  First, the state of Maryland eliminated all local school officials beyond the level of principal.  It then consolidated all of its schools serving less than one million students statewide within one of the 24 countywide districts in each county under an Executive County Superintendent.  

Although Maryland abolished all administrators above the level of principal from the local schools in the name of saving money, cutting administrative expenses, and cutting property taxes, these small one time savings were more than exceeded by the ongoing costs of the office of Executive County Superintendent of Schools with its ever increasing bureaucracy.  For example, in Maryland, the Montgomery County Department of Education alone has an annual operating budget of approximately $2 billion with nearly 22,000 employees despite having a total student enrollment of less than 138,000.  The office of Executive County Superintendent of Schools for Montgomery County, therefore, employs roughly one administrator for every six of its students!  

The Executive County Superintendent, who is appointed by the governor, supervises, directs and manages the functions of the County Office of Education as a representative and subordinate of the New Jersey State Commissioner of Education.  The Executive County Superintendent oversees all public school districts within his/her county.  To accomplish these goals, each county superintendent is given a staff and a budget which are not subject to taxpayer input, approval or elections. 

Contrary to core principles of democracy, the Executive County Superintendent has the authority to override a school district’s budget despite its prior approval by its duly elected board of education.  He/she can do so without any prior consultation or notification of the elected board of education or the local district’s superintendent or business administrator.  Indeed, the Executive County Superintendent’s exercise of a line item veto over non-instructional costs in a local school district’s budget would be contrary to the will of the locally elected board of education that represents the local taxpayers as demonstrated by their previous vote of approval for the vetoed items.  

In addition, a board of education is prohibited from transferring funds into any line item that was vetoed by the Executive County Superintendent.  The County Superintendent’s line item veto authority covers all non-instructional line items including administrative expenses.  The appointed Executive County Superintendent, therefore, could eliminate administrative positions deemed necessary by the elected local board of education who would then lack sufficient recourse.  

The Executive County Superintendent is empowered to review all district budgets within the county.  He/she has the authority to veto a portion of the district’s budget and the district will have to deduct this portion prior to the budget’s posting on the ballot for the public vote in April.  The district is then prohibited from transferring any funds into those line items or spending any funds toward the vetoed items for the fiscal year.  

The Executive County Superintendent’s is responsible for ensuring that each school district budget includes sufficient funds to meet the requirements of the state’s Core Curriculum Content Standards (CCCS).  The district’s administrative and support services per pupil costs are compared to the state median.  The Executive County Superintendent can administer reductions in these areas if the district’s costs exceed the state guidelines. 

The Executive County Superintendent is required to review, evaluate, and approve all employment contracts for administrators not covered by a collective bargaining agreement including but not limited to superintendents, assistant superintendents, and business administrators.  He/she must also enforce the state mandated caps on accumulated unused vacation and sick days.  

According to the School Funding Reform Act (New Jersey Department of Education, 2008), the Executive County Superintendent can withhold or recapture state aid if he/she discovers excessive spending, inefficiencies, or that the district has violated any state law or regulation.  Another condition for receiving state aid stipulates that every district must refinance all outstanding debt for which a three percent net present value could be realized. 

The Executive County Superintendent enforces the state mandated four percentage point cap on a local school district’s annual property tax levy.  The tax levy is also reduced if the district’s budget is found to exceed the state’s calculated adequacy level for that particular district and if the district receives an increase in state aid exceeding the greater of two percent or the Consumer Price Index (CPI.)   

The implication behind the creation of the office of Executive County Superintendent of Schools was that it would somehow save the taxpayers’ money and enable the state to have lower property taxes.  The experience of such a control model in the state of Maryland contradicts such assumptions as does the New Jersey’s county control model.  New Jersey’s 21 counties combine to spend over $6.3 billion annually in property taxes and hold more than $5 billion in outstanding debt.  County government places a tremendous burden on New Jersey’s taxpayers especially as compared to those in Connecticut where county government was eliminated in 1960.  

While economies of scale apply in the private sector especially in manufacturing, they do not apply as well to the education sector with its value added services.  In the education arena it usually takes a defined number of people per capita to provide a defined level of service.  Larger school systems such as regional or consolidated countywide school districts, therefore, are more expensive to operate than smaller, local school districts because of their “penalties of scale” (Coffin, 2010, p. 1).    

Decentralization rather than centralization brings decision makers closer to the taxpayers and local priorities.  Taxpayers have more of a stake in the success of their local school rather than county districts.  Indeed, separating the taxpayer from his/her ability to control and influence the operating budget and educational plan of his/her local school district cuts neither costs nor property taxes. 


When New Jersey Governor James McGreevey signed S1701 into law on July 1, 2004, as Chapter 73, Public Laws of New Jersey 2004 (New Jersey Department of Education, 2005), the state took a major step in its continued erosion of local control over school districts especially in terms of a district’s surplus, budget flexibility, administrative spending limits, and spending growth limitation adjustments.  While this legislation accelerated the loss of local autonomy for school districts the state did not apply it to county and municipal governments even though these levels of government also are funded primarily by local property taxes.  

S1701 reduced the maximum allowable district surplus to no more than three percent in the 2004-05 fiscal year and two percent in the 2005-06 fiscal year and beyond.  Prior to the passage of S1701, the state prohibited non-Abbott districts from having a surplus of less than six percent.  Because a district’s surplus serves as insurance against unforeseen expenses, S1701 forces a district to either cut non-mandate protected educational programs and services such as regular education or increase property taxes.  

S1701 required that any surplus in excess of the percentage limitations must be used for property tax relief.  But the property tax relief would be implemented by limiting the amount of property taxes a district could levy in the upcoming fiscal year rather than as a direct refund to taxpayers, furthering constraining local autonomy.  

S1701 (New Jersey Department of Education, 2005) limited a district’s budgetary flexibility by restricting the growth in the base budget to the higher of two and half percent or the Consumer Price Index (CPI).  It also limited Spending Growth Limitation Adjustments (SGLA) that enable districts to meet unbudgeted increases in expenses for such items as hazardous route transportation, courtesy busing, insurance, utilities, or legal services.  Once routine budgetary transfers such as line item transfers exceeding ten percent as well as transfers of surplus and unbudgeted revenue now require county approval.  

According to the New Jersey School Boards Association (2004), S1701 further eroded local taxpayer control by limiting a district’s use of second ballot questions, often referred to as second questions.  By casting votes on second questions, citizens exert control over the authorization of funds for specific educational programs and services that are in addition to the base operating budget.  Through the exercise of second questions (New Jersey School Boards Association, 2004, p. 3), “the community determines if it is willing and able to raise the money to fund the expenditure over cap for programs ranging from full-day Kindergarten and after-school enrichment programs to extra-curricular activities.”  

S1701 further eroded the ability of local school districts to develop, approve, and implement their operating budgets.  Decision making authority over many budgetary items such as the acquisition and allocation of a school district’s financial and human resources were largely transferred to the county level of government as the state’s execution arm.  Indeed, (New Jersey School Boards Association, 2004, p. 2) S1701 “lessened a community’s ability to determine school finance matters and related educational policy.”  

Upon taking office in January, 2010, New Jersey Governor Christie announced he would withhold $475 million in promised state aid to school districts statewide as part of his effort to close the state fiscal year budget deficit of approximately $2 billion.  What makes the governor’s plan significant is that he requires districts to make up for cuts in state aid by using their surplus and reserve account funds.  

Governor Christie’s plan requires districts to use all of their excess surplus plus 25% of the reserve accounts for capital, maintenance, emergencies and excess.  This means that most non-Abbott districts will lose most if not all of their state aid for the balance of the fiscal year that ends on June 30.  Because the state already required districts to roll over any surplus exceeding the two percent level as property tax relief according to S1701, this reduction in surplus will lead most likely to deeper cuts to non-mandate protected educational programs and property tax increases in districts statewide.  


While the California Department of Education has the overall responsibility to administer education throughout the state, it does so primarily through California’s 58 counties.  Each county department of education oversees the school districts within its boundaries.  While the counties collect property taxes on behalf of the state and the mill rate is established in the state constitution, it is the state that determines how much funding including revenue from property taxes each district receives and how those funds are allocated.   

But California had enjoyed a long tradition of local control of school district budgets, capital projects, human resources as well as the provision of educational programs and services according to local needs and priorities.  The role of the state and county governments in governing and funding local school districts was severely limited.  While the state provided a minimal funding level, local school districts levied property taxes to generate the overwhelming majority of their revenues.  Taxpayers’ votes determined district budgets as well as the members of their local boards of education.  A district’s financial and human resources allocations were based on the district’s educational plan as approved by the duly elected local board of education.  

The state ended this tradition by constantly eroding local control through the strings it attached to the funding it provided and the policies it mandated for local school districts.  Once the state gained the majority control over school finance, the state was then in a position to also control educational policy in all of the nearly 1,000 school districts.  

Today, local school districts depend almost entirely on the state for their revenues and largely lack the authority to raise revenues that only they can control.  Because state funds come with powerful strings attached, the state leverages its funding to determine how a district allocates its budget and human resources.  Districts have almost no discretion over their use of the majority of state funds.  

The strings attached to California’s state aid result in the majority of a district’s funds being restricted only for use according to the state’s mandates.  Most of the unrestricted state funding finances the salaries and benefits for a district’s employees.  A district’s financial and human resources allocation is overwhelmingly determined by the state according to its one size fits all approach which does not account for differences in local educational needs, priorities, and cost drivers.  By controlling school finance and making policy decisions that once were the province of local school districts, California consolidated and centralized the control of education at the state level.  

The current recession has adversely impacted the state’s budget over the last few years especially education which is the largest component of California’s expenditures.  This has caused the state to pass along revenue cuts, deferrals, and allocation formula adjustments to local school districts despite promises and legislative guarantees to the contrary.  Because legislation has forced local school districts to become overwhelmingly dependent on state revenues, districts were forced to depend on unreliable state aid and, therefore, have been disproportionately affected.  

But the seeds of California’s fiscal calamity were sown well before the current recession could impact its budget.  The roots of the financial crisis are found in California’s history of creating unsustainable state budgets especially during periods of economic growth while simultaneously forcing local school districts to become overly dependent on unreliable state revenue sources.  There are three fundamental causes of the fiscal crisis which continue to plague California’s local school districts.  These include a major court ruling, state constitutional amendments, and voter passed initiatives. 

The first causal factor was the 1971 California Supreme Court’s Serrano v. Priest ruling in which the court declared the system of funding local school districts based on primarily on local property taxes to be unconstitutional if differences in ratables (Fischel, 2001, p. 99) “led to disparities in educational opportunities, which the court apparently took to mean spending per pupil.”  This decision not only effectively ended the tradition of local control over school budgets, property tax levies, and capital projects but also led to the centralization of control over school finance at the state level. 

But the resultant centralization of school finance at the state level lowered the quality of education generally throughout the state because it separated local taxpayers from their connection or stake in their local schools.  This stake derives from the payment of local property taxes for local schools.  This demonstrated Fischel’s (2001) homevoter hypothesis because the benefits local taxpayers derived from the quality of the education provided in their local schools funded by their local property taxes were no longer capitalized in their property values.  Fischel (2001, p. 129) concludes, “voters are aware of this connection, and that statewide funding especially alienates the majority of the population who have no children in the public school system.” 

Fischel (2001) demonstrates how the Serrano v. Priest decision resulted in the passage of Proposition 13 with its dramatic end to local control over the then main source of revenues, local property taxes.  According to Fischel (2001,) the Serrano v. Priest decision led to the passage of a state constitutional amendment called Proposition 13 which was the second major cause.  The enactment of this legislation in 1978 severely cut the amount of local property tax revenue available to local school districts as well as the amount under local control.  The legislation enabled the state to collect and then redistribute local property taxes based on the state’s funding formula rather than according to local needs and priorities.  

The third major factor in the reshaping of California’s school finance system was the passage of Proposition 98 in 1988.  When voters approved this ballot initiative, the state of California was compelled to guarantee a minimal level of funding for all local school districts throughout the state. 

Prior to the Serrano v. Priest ruling, local school districts controlled their budgets including the levying of property taxes to fund school operations.  But post Serrano, the state imposed revenue limits on school districts and narrowed the gap in general purpose funding by capping the wealthier districts while providing larger subsidies to low income districts.  The (Perry, 2004) ceiling placed on wealthier districts combined with the sliding scale of increases for lower income districts helped the state achieve the equalization standard expressed in the Serrano v. Priest ruling.  

But the adoption of Proposition 13 went beyond the Serrano v. Priest ruling in changing the state’s role in school finance by severely limiting a district’s ability to levy and benefit directly from local property taxes.  Proposition 13 amended the California State Constitution with its main provisions including:  

No property should be taxed at more than one percent of 1975 fair market value; municipalities may impose “special taxes” by a two-thirds vote of the electors; assessments may not grow more than two percent annually from 1975-76 levels, to which they were rolled back, except for property sold after 1975-76; and no increase in state taxes may be enacted without a two-thirds vote of each legislature.  (Yudof, Kirp, Levin, & Moran, 2002, p. 798)  

Following the passage of Proposition 13, the state was empowered to establish a statewide mill rate, limit millage increases, and, more importantly, prevent local school districts from levying, collecting, and benefiting directly from local property taxes.  This overturned the Separation of Sources Act (Barbour, 2007 as cited in Perry & Edwards, 2009) which had granted exclusive control over determining and levying property taxes to local governmental entities including school districts in 1910.  

Because of the resultant drastic reduction in the control over and receipt of local property tax revenues, the state was forced to (Yudof  et al., 2002, p. 798) “bail them out by using $2.2 billion of the $3 billion state surplus to make up the difference.”  While the state gained control over the allocation of locally levied property taxes, the inequities in funding among school districts were then a function of the state’s school funding formula rather than ones caused by disparities in property values and ratables.  

Because Proposition 13 and the Serrano v. Priest ruling combined to both severely limit the ability of local school districts to raise their own revenue to fully fund their budgets and centralize the control over school district funding at the state level, the voters amended the constitution by approving Proposition 98 in 1988.  Proposition 98 guaranteed that the state would use the local property taxes that it now controlled plus other state tax revenues to fund a minimum level or floor of all local school district budgets.  

According to the requirements of Proposition 98, the state guarantees that at least 40% of its general fund resources will be dedicated to funding public education.  This guaranteed funding floor is established by modifying the amount a district received in the preceding fiscal year (Edwards & Leichty, 2010) for enrollment, attendance, and statewide income levels. 

In 1990, Proposition 111 modified Proposition 98 to the extent that if the state’s General Fund revenues decline, then the growth rate of the guaranteed funding level will be lowered correspondingly.  As a constitutional amendment, Proposition 111 enables the state to make “fair share” reductions to the guaranteed funding level during economic downturns (Edwards & Leichty, 2010, p. 5).    

The risk to local school district budgets of depending on unreliable revenue from the state’s unsustainable budgets materialized in major way during economic crisis following Governor Schwarzenneger’s election.  To alleviate the state’s budget deficit, Governor Schwarzenegger (Picus as cited in Fusarelli & Cooper, 2009) negotiated a one year suspension of Proposition 98.  Although the governor guaranteed that the funds would be repaid (Picus as cited in Fusarelli & Cooper, 2009, p. 14) he “did not include them in his annual budget” for the following fiscal year.   

Nationwide the soaring cost of under funded state mandates and regulation has forced local school districts to raise property taxes or cut non-mandate protected regular education programs and services resulting in a leveling down of educational quality.  California is no exception as Greenhut (2005, p. 1) reports that according to Proposition 4, which was approved in 1979, the state is required “to reimburse local school districts for the mandates it imposes on them.  California owes districts more than $3.6 billion.”  These deferred payments have caused severe cash flow problems for local school districts.  

As the state’s fiscal crisis deepened and with Proposition 98’s guaranteed educational funding being the largest state expenditure (Edwards & Leichty, 2010), the state cut educational funding to the bare minimum.  In this way the state not only reduced spending in the current fiscal year (Edwards & Leichty, 2010) but also minimized its obligations going forward.  These funding reductions caused districts to cut non-mandate protected regular education programs and services and exacerbated their cash flow problems.  

But Proposition 111’s amendments compel the state to accrue a maintenance factor for any shortcomings owed districts resulting from a suspension of or changes in the minimum funding guaranteed in Proposition 98.  The maintenance factor (Edwards & Leichty, 2010, p. 5) is the “difference between the actual spending level and what would have been spent under normal growth.”  By the second quarter of 2009 the state’s cumulative maintenance factor debt obligation reached $11.2 billion which further highlighted the funding shortfalls for local school districts.  

The Serrano v. Priest ruling combined with Propositions 13 and 98 resulted in the state controlling school finance and policy for all of its nearly 1,000 school districts.  The state determines how its various educational resources are allocated among the school districts and largely how they will be used.  

The state establishes revenue limits for each district.  But only through the passage of legislation can the state, rather than the local school district, adjust a district’s revenue limit.  When the local property taxes controlled by the state increase, the majority of schools do not benefit because any incremental property tax revenue is applied to the limit and the state’s component is lowered proportionately.  


The states of New Jersey and California exemplify the problems associated with state domination of local school systems particularly as executed through the level of county government.  State centralized funding leads to a one-size-fits-all approach for education but one that fits no district.  

The specific needs of individual school districts vary to such a large degree that they render uniform state funding and policy formulas inadequate.  Instead, public school districts need a mass customization of educational funding, control, and policy that can only derive from local control.  Oates (1972) supports the notion that public education should be provided at the lowest level.  Kenny (1982) also argues for the provision of public education by local school districts.  

Baker, Green, and Richards (2008, p. 66) explain how “the local property tax empowers local voters to express what they want for their local public schools.”  The consequence according to Baker, Green, and Richards (2008, p. 66) is that “when property taxes become statewide taxes, the political advantages of empowering local citizens and promoting competition and sorting among jurisdictions is lost.”  This mass standardization of school finance and policy leads to state funding guidelines that are incongruous with the needs and priorities of local school districts.  

It is difficult for state run school systems to be accountable to the taxpayer.  California demonstrates its lack of accountability by withholding or deferring funds which it is legally obligated to send to local school districts.  As a result, California has “fallen from its position a leader in per-student spending in the 1970’s to now spending well below the national average (Jacobson, 2007, p. 2).  As Jacobson (2007, p. 3) explains, because the state has centralized control over local school finance and policy, the state’s “financial resources are distributed in such an irrational way that schools serving similar student populations in similar locations receive different funding.”  

California regularly withholds funds that it is required to allocate spend on its public schools but uses these funds to help offset state budget deficits.  California has withheld nearly $15 billion of aid for its schools.  California owes local school districts more than $3.6 billion in reimbursement for under funded state mandates in violation of Proposition 4 requirements.  Moreover, the state’s owes local school districts $11.2 billion in Proposition 111 maintenance factor obligations.   

New Jersey is similarly expanding state control and authority through its counties at the expense of local control, autonomy, and accountability.  The state increased its bureaucracy and administrative expenses through the greatly expanded Office of The Executive County Superintendent.  This appointed official can override decisions made by duly elected boards of education through the exercise of the line item veto.  

The authority of the Executive County Superintendent supersedes that of locally elected boards of education effectively rendering local boards of education as no longer the trustees of a district’s financial and human resources whom the taxpayer can hold accountable.  Taxpayers have great difficulty holding the state accountable.  Examples of this include the state’s recapturing surplus and reserve funds governed by S1701, the failure of the School Construction Corporation, and the continued lack of student and school achievement in the Abbott districts. 

Any reduction in local school district control over the levying and allocating of property taxes decreases accountability and adversely affects public school quality.  Taxpayers are more involved in, have a much greater stake in their local school districts, and act to hold these school districts accountable when they pay local property taxes directly to their local schools rather than have their local property taxes controlled by the state and redistributed as if they were statewide revenues according to a state funding formula.  

Fischel (2001, p. 152) explains the consequences of statewide property tax redistribution using voters without children in the public schools, “At the local level, they are willing to support, or at least not oppose, high levels of spending because better schools add to the value of their homes.  At the state level, voters without children do not perceive such an offsetting benefit to their taxes.”  Having a lowered sense of ownership in their schools, taxpayers become more complacent as the proportion of state funding increases.  This causes a corresponding reduction in the level of accountability required by the stakeholders and the quality of their public schools’ education declines as a result. 

State control over schools interrupts the connection taxpayers’ make between their property values and property taxes.  As Sonstelie, Brunner, and Ardon explain (Sonstelie, Brunner, & Ardon, 2000, p. 102 as cited in , 2001, p. 136) the “reason that local control produces better schools is that the local property tax system channels the revenues of nonresidential property into public education.”  The greater is the proportion of non-residential properties in a district’s mix of ratables, the lower is the tax burden on residential properties.  This lowers their “tax price” (Fischel, 2001, p. 136) making their local schools relatively less expensive and as a result, taxpayers are “induced to spend more on education.”  

Typical taxpayers resemble investors because they want their major asset, their home, to appreciate in value.  As Fischel (2001, p. 136) explains how “voters tolerate property taxes only when the public services financed by them are capitalized in home values.”  Home owners have a vested interest in the success of their local schools because the credit rating of a school district’s host municipality is largely dependent on the financial soundness and credit worthiness of its schools.  The higher is a municipality’s or a school district’s credit rating; the lower is its debt service expense. 

The greater is the quality of the local school district, the greater is the taxpayer’s property value because the demand for quality education leads to a higher market price.  As a result, taxpayers strive to protect and improve their property values.  They evaluate the quality of their school district so as to maximize their property values.  But if their school district’s quality deteriorates or is expected to decline, typical Tieboutian taxpayers will vote with their feet.   

By voting with their feet, taxpayers choose the local school district that best meets their needs and one that will contribute to their property values.  But taxpayers vote not only with their feet but also on school district operating budgets, capital projects, and board of education members.  Through the exercise of these votes, taxpayers control the quality of education provided by their local schools as well as the level of property taxes levied.  Their collective decisions lead to a Pareto efficient allocation of local public education.  In this context, Baker, Green, and Richards (2008, p. 21) state that the “Tiebout model represents the most basic form of school choice.” 

Tiebout (1956) argues that because crowding and congestion affect the provision of public goods and services, it is inefficient to provide public education at a centralized level and public education is more efficiently provided at the local level.  Fischel (2001) supports this conclusion with his assessment of California’s centralized school finance system in which taxpayers lost control over local schools and property taxes.  This led to reduced levels of taxpayer involvement in and support for public education.   

Fischel (2001, p. 161) concludes “the apparent quality of public education has declined nationwide as the states’ share of funding for it has risen.”  It is essential that taxpayers rather than states or counties have control over their local schools so they will be motivated to properly fund, support and improve public education.  


Baker, B. D., Green, P., & Richards, C. E. (2008). Financing Education Systems. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey:  Pearson Education, Inc. 

Barbour, E. (2007). State-Local Fiscal Conflicts in California:  From Proposition 13 to Proposition 1A. Public Policy Institute of California,

Coffin, S. (2010, December 26). Penalties of Scale:  Why Large School Districts Need to Disaggregate. Retrieved from Coffin’s Education Center,

CommUNITY Against Regionalization Efforts (2009). Core Act, C.A.R.E. Retrieved from

Edwards, B., M., & Leichty, J. (2010). School Finance 2009-10:  Budget Cataclysm and its Aftermath. Mountain View, California:  EdSource.  

Fischel, W. A. (2001). The Homevoter Hypothesis:  How Home Values Influence Local Government Taxation, School Finance, and Land-Use Policies. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. 

Fischel, W. A. (2009). Making the Grade:  The Economic Evolution of American School Districts. Chicago and London:  University of Chicago Press.  

Fusarelli, B. C., & Cooper, B. S., Editors. (2009). The Rising State:  How State Power is Transforming our Nation’s Schools. Albany, New York:  SUNY Press.  

Greenhut, S. (2005). State meddling hamstrings schools. The Orange County Register, Retrieved from  

Jacobson, L. (2007). California’s Schooling is “Broken”:  Studies Call for Overhaul of Finance, Governance. Education Week, 26(28) Retrieved from 

Kenny, L. W. (1982). Economies of scale in schooling. Economics of Education Review, (2) 1-24. 

Kenny, L. W., & Schmidt, A. B. (1994). The Decline in the Number of School Districts in the United States 1950 – 1980. The Public Choice, (79) 1-18. 

New Jersey Department of Education (2005). S1701 Regulations. Retrieved from  

New Jersey Department of Education (2008). School Funding Reform Act. Retrieved from   

New Jersey Department of Education (2010). S450. Retrieved from   

New Jersey School Boards Association (2004). S1701 Signed Into Law. Retrieved from     

Oates, W. E. (1972). Fiscal Federalism. New York:  Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.  

Perry, M. (2004). Rethinking How California Funds its Schools. Mountain View, California:  EdSource.  

Perry, M., & Edwards, B. (2009). Local Revenues for Schools:  Limits and Options in California. Mountain View, California:  EdSource.  

Picus, L. O., (2009). California. In Fusarelli, B. C., & Cooper, B. S., (Editors), The Rising State: How State Power is Transforming our Nation’s Schools, (pp. 9-26). New York, New York:  SUNY Press. 

Sonstelie, J., Brunner, E., & Ardon, K. (2000). For Better or for Worse? School Finance Reform in California.  San Francisco:  Public Policy Institute of California. 

Tiebout, C. M., (1956). A Pure Theory of Local Expenditures. The Journal of Political Economy, 64, 416-424.

Yudof, M. G., Kirp, D. L., Levin, B., & Moran, R. F. (2002). Educational Policy and the Law. Belmont, California:  Wadsworth Group/Thomson Learning.

TELs take their Toll on Education

Tuesday, June 29th, 2010

Tax and Expenditure Limits (TEL)

The major question confronting New Jersey’s educational system is most likely whether the state should implement a 2.5% cap on local public school districts’ annual operating budgets which is otherwise known as a tax and expenditure limit (TEL.) This question seems to arise from the most compelling issue facing public office holders, legislators, and policy makers as well as taxpayers statewide which is how to limit the amount and growth rate of New Jersey’s taxes especially its property taxes.  Governor Christie’s answer is to implement a 2.5% TEL on local property taxes and expenditures similar to Massachusetts’ Proposition 2.5 or California’s Proposition 13.

Why should taxpayers allow the passage of legislation that would enable the state of New Jersey to limit a local school district’s ability to determine the amount of property taxes it levies as well as its level of expenditures?  Voters currently have more control over their local school district’s property taxes than they have over any other form of taxation whether the tax is levied by their municipal, county, state or federal government.  Why then should the state be able to set an arbitrary one-size-fits-all limit on the amount of property taxes local school districts can levy when property taxes are set according to local needs and priorities?  Such a one-size-fits-all cap will fit no district because districts are unique.

Taxpayers can vote on their local school district budgets in all but a handful of towns but no taxpayer is able to vote on the budget of his/her municipal or county government despite the fact that these two levels of government are funded almost entirely by local property taxes.  Because taxpayers can vote on school budgets, they can hold their school systems accountable but without a corresponding vote on municipal and particularly county government budgets taxpayers can not hold these levels of government accountable.  This is one of the chief reasons why county government costs New Jersey’s taxpayers more than $6.1 billion annually! 

All Local School District Property Taxes are Invested in the Host Municipality

All of a local school district’s property taxes remain and are invested in the schools of the host municipality so that the taxpayers benefit fully from the property taxes levied.  County property taxes differ sharply from those levied to fund our public schools because they are redistributed to support an unaccountable, wasteful, and duplicative layer of government.  This leads many researchers, most notably O’Sullivan, Sexton, and Sheffrin (2007,) to conclude that “local governments” and public school districts “must have access to a revenue source that they can adjust to meet varying demands.” 

Funding our public schools through local property taxes is essential because county government siphons away crucial local property taxes and state governmental financial aid is unreliable.  O’Sullivan, Sexton, and Sheffrin (2007) demonstrate that “the property tax can be administered by local government” and public school districts “with relatively little fear of its tax base migrating to other jurisdictions, thus providing local governments with the needed fiscal autonomy. The property tax has been the source of economic independence of local units of government” and local public school districts for generations. 

Unfunded State and Federal Mandates Cause TELs to Cut Regular Education

There are only two kinds of programs and services offered by our public schools:  those that are mandate protected and those that are non-mandate protected.  Because school districts are forced by the state and federal governments to fully fund the unfunded portion of their mandates, public school districts must choose between cutting non-mandate protected programs and services or raising property taxes.  School districts have no control over many of their major cost drivers such as the costs resulting from increases in unfunded mandates, enrollment, utilities, transportation, health insurance, legal actions, and the number as well as the mix of special education students.  When a school district that is limited by a 2.5% TEL experiences increases in these uncontrollable expenses, it must cut expenses in other areas to stay within the cap. 

One major fallacy in the cap advocacy argument is that local school districts are required to fund the unfunded portion of all state and federal mandates over which local school districts have no control.  State and federal mandates drive the overwhelming majority of local school district expenditures and, hence, property tax levies.  Property taxes could be slashed nationwide especially those funding our public schools and there would be no need for TELs, if the state and federal governments would just fully fund all of their mandates! 

A TEL may force a typical school district to increase class sizes so as to minimize its expenditures for teachers and aides.  But this will lead to lower test scores and likely No Child Left Behind (NCLB) operational and financial penalties.  A TEL, therefore, gives a school district only one course of action:  hold property tax increases within the state imposed percentage point limit while simultaneously cutting non-mandate protected programs and services but fully funding the unfunded portion of all mandates.  That is, cutting regular education. 

There is No Such Thing as a Free Lunch

Governor Christie along with the proponents of TELs purport that school districts will be become more financially responsible because of the state imposed limit on their expenditures and tax levies.  TEL proponents argue that if school districts are left to their own devices, they would continue to spend and tax at ever increasing rates while the TEL’s implementation will force school districts to hold down expenditures and property taxes.  TEL proponents seem to expect units of local government and our public schools to provide the same level of public goods and services if not a higher quality of education but at a lower price. 

TEL proponents and policy makers disaffected by the seemingly ever increasing size and cost of public education assert that the TEL will lower property taxes and, therefore, make the provision of public education more efficient rather than cutting essential educational programs and services.  Although most people realize there is no such thing as a “free lunch,” TEL advocates claim that school systems could provide at least the same quantity of education without lowering the quality of education because the TEL would compel districts to eliminate waste.  But no TEL can guarantee that any school district will not cut non-mandate protected programs and services or regular education before eliminating any waste or inefficiency.  

The passage of the major TEL’s, Proposition 2.5 in 1980 in Massachusetts and Proposition 13 in 1978 in California, shows how voters frustrated with state governmental inefficiency, waste, and overspending resorted to a cap which they perceived as the only means available to remedy their situation.  Voters in both states believed prior to the vote that the imposition of the TEL would substantially eliminate inefficiency, waste, and overspending but it would do so without lowering the quality or quantity of public goods and services such as education.  But once the TELs were imposed in Massachusetts and California, however, taxpayers acted “consistent with the (O’Sullivan, 2001) regret theory of tax limits” or buyers’ remorse. 

The history of TELs, budgetary caps or even the wage and price controls imposed under former President Nixon demonstrates that placing arbitrary limits on revenues and expenditures results in a corresponding reduction in the quantity and quality of the public programs and services such as education provided by the TEL affected entity.  Indeed, Downes and Figlio (2008) describe the TEL proponents who assert that “constitutional constraints like Proposition 13 could reduce the size of local governments and, at the same time, have little or no effect on the quality of public services provided” as seeking a “free lunch.” 

Apples versus OrangesMassachusetts’ Proposition 2.5 versus Governor Christie’s 2.5% Cap

Contrary to Governor Christie’s 2.5% cap proposal, Massachusetts imposed its 2.5% TEL during an economic boom and provided significant amounts of incremental state aid to school districts to make up for the loss of local property tax revenue.  But New Jersey is mired in a deep recession with seemingly ever increasing state budget deficits which have already resulted in severe cuts to state educational aid.  Because state aid is declining and no additional state financial aid is forthcoming to offset lost property tax revenues, school districts would be forced to cut non-mandate protected educational programs and services much more deeply than was experienced in Massachusetts. 

State aid is unreliable.  Massachusetts educational aid fluctuates while California has not complied with Proposition 98’s constitutional guarantees to provide state aid to local school districts to make up for the property tax revenues lost under Proposition 13.  As a result of Proposition 13, California’s per pupil spending fell precipitously to an average of approximately $7,500 per pupil as compared to an average of $47,000 per inmate at its state penal institutions while its average class sizes became the second highest in the nation.  Also, Massachusetts imposed its 2.5% cap during a period of declining student enrollment while New Jersey’s enrollment levels continue to increase.  Hence, Massachusetts’ lower school district expenditures were largely offset by a much lower level of student enrollment which helped to greatly minimize the cuts to educational programs and services which would not be the case in New Jersey. 

Taxpayers’ Expectations for TELs

New Jersey taxpayers generally seem to believe that much greater accountability, efficiency, and transparency at all levels of government will lead to lower spending and, hence, lower taxes.  But voters do not want fewer public goods and services; just a much lower price for the public goods and services that they enjoy today.  Government at all levels tends to overtax, taxpayers contend, because governments waste financial resources and are inefficient.  Governor Christie’s 2.5% TEL, therefore, seems to be a tempting way to accomplish these goals.  

In addition, Governor Christie’s 2.5% TEL lacks the flexibility for state and local governments as well as our public schools to respond appropriately to unforeseen circumstances or a declining economy.  For instance, public schools tend to experience an increase of students transferring from private schools when the economy declines and parents are more challenged to find ways to pay for tuition in addition to property taxes.  Governor Christie’s 2.5% cap proposal, therefore, can not guarantee that any level of government will operate at peak efficiency before cutting the public goods and services including education that they provide. 

Governor Christie’s 2.5% cap proposal would enable the state to determine the budgetary and property tax policies of local governments and school districts through its state imposed limitations.  If enacted, the 2.5% cap would lead, therefore, to increased centralization of educational funding along with its concomitant increased control over local school districts’ operations.  The 2.5% TEL would lead to limitations on local school district expenditures and property tax levies which in turn would lower the quality of public education. 

TELs’ Impact on Education and Student Achievement

TELs not only limit the amount of property tax revenue available to school districts but also and more importantly adversely impact how a typical school district provides educational programs and services.  Downes and Figlio’s (1999a) findings explain how “the imposition of tax and expenditure limits results in the long-run reductions in the performance of public school students.”  Students attending schools in TEL affected districts (Figlio, 1997; Downes, Dye, & McGuire, 1998; Downes & Figlio, 1999b) not only experienced much larger class sizes but also scored significantly lower on mathematics, language arts, and social studies standardized tests.  When it comes to education, therefore, TELs lead to a reduction in the quantity as well as the quality of education, an increase in class sizes, and a leveling down of student achievement. 

TELs seem to adversely impact student achievement disproportionately to the amount of property tax revenues lost or expenditures cut.  Downes and Figlio (2008) conclude that TELs “lead to reductions in student outcomes that are far larger than might be expected given the changes in spending.”  Possible explanations for this result include disproportionate cuts in instructional rather than administrative expenditures, higher student-teacher ratios, and a shift especially of the more talented students to private K to 12 schools.  Because teacher salaries and benefits generally account for more than approximately 70% of a typical school district’s budget, it stands to reason that these expenses would be cut more severely.  Reductions of teachers under the constraints of a TEL often lead to larger class sizes which when combined with the loss of regular educational programs and services tends to result in the transfer of many students especially the more gifted ones to private schools (Downes & Figlio, 2008.) 


While Governor Christie aims to limit local public school districts’ property tax revenues and expenditures to no more than a 2.5% annual increase, this cap will most likely lead to a leveling-down of the quality of public education.  Indeed, our nation’s two major TELs, California’s Proposition 13 and particularly Massachusetts’ Proposition 2.5 on which Governor Christie’s proposal is modeled, demonstrate the downside of such caps.  These TELs (Fishel, 2001) destroyed the connection among local control, property taxes, school district budgets, educational quality, and taxpayer support because taxpayers essentially lost their ability to hold local school districts accountable to their goal of maximizing their property values. 

The fundamental problem with trying to hold all of New Jersey’s public school districts’ property tax revenues and expenditures to annual increases not exceeding 2.5% is that it leads to a one-size-fits-all approach for education but one that fits no district.  Baker, Green and Richards (2008) explain, “The local property tax empowers local voters to express what they want for their local public schools.”  But when the artificial budgetary constraints of a TEL are imposed by the state, as Baker, Green and Richards (2008) conclude, “the political advantages of empowering local citizens and promoting competition and sorting among jurisdictions is lost.”  Thus, the TEL leads to school district budgets that are incongruous with the needs and priorities of local school districts. 

Governor Christie’s proposed reduction in local school district control over the levying of property taxes and determining the operating budget decreases local school district accountability and adversely affects public school quality.  Because reductions of property tax revenues through the 2.5% TEL will reduce the level of local investment in the school district; the stake held by local taxpayers is similarly reduced.  Fischel (2001) explains this using the motives of taxpayers without children in the public schools, “At the local level, they are willing to support, or at least not oppose, high levels of spending because better schools add to the value of their homes.”  Through the imposition of a TEL, “At the state level, voters without children do not perceive such an offsetting benefit to their taxes.”  Having a lowered sense of ownership in their schools, taxpayers become more complacent without local control over their school district’s property taxes.  This causes a corresponding reduction in the level of accountability required by the stakeholders and, therefore, the quality of their public schools’ education declines.

Taxpayers choose the local public school district that best meets their needs and one that will contribute to their property values by exercising true Tieboutian choice (Tiebout, 1956) and voting with their feet.  But taxpayers vote not only with their feet but also on school district operating budgets, capital projects, and board of education members.  Through the exercise of these votes, taxpayers control the quality of education provided by their local schools as well as the level of property taxes levied.  Their collective decisions lead to a Pareto efficient allocation of local public education. 

But a TEL, such as Governor Christie’s 2.5% cap proposal, would destroy the Tieboutian equilibrium (Tiebout, 1956) enjoyed by local public school districts.  It would do so by artificially limiting budgets below the levels congruent with the needs and priorities of local school districts.  Because the quality of a taxpayer’s local public schools as well as his/her property taxes are capitalized in the value of their home, the consequence of Governor Christie’s 2.5% TEL would be to lower educational quality and, therefore, property values.  


Baker, B. D., Green, P., & Richards, C. E., (2008). Financing Education Systems, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey:  Pearson Education, Inc. 

Downes, T. A. & Figlio, D. N., (1999a). Do Tax and Expenditure Limits Provide a Free Lunch? Evidence on the Link Between Limits and Public Sector Service Quality. National Tax Journal, 52, 113-128. 

Downes, T. A. & Figlio, D. N., (1999b). Economic Inequality and the Provision of Schooling, Federal Reserve Bank of New York, Economic Policy Review, 5, 99-110.   

Downes, T. A. & Figlio, D. N., (2008). Tax and Expenditure Limits, School Finance and School Quality in The Handbook of Research in Education Finance and Policy, Ladd, H. F., & Fiske, E. B., (Editors) (373-388).  New York, New York:  Routledge Taylor & Francis Group. 

Downes, T. A., Dye, R. F., & McGuire, T. J., (1998). Do Limits Matter? Evidence on the Effects of Tax Limitations on Student Performance, The Journal of Urban Economics, 43, 401-417.

Figlio, D. N., (1997). Did the “Tax Revolt” Reduce School Performance?, The Journal of Public Economics, 65, 245-269.

Fischel, W., (2001). The Homevoter Hypothesis: How Home Values Influence Local Government Taxation, School Finance, and Land-Use Policies, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.  

O’Sullivan, A., (2001). Limits on Local Property Taxation:  The United States Experience in Property Taxation and Local Government Finance, Oates, W. E., (Editor) (177-200). Cambridge, Massachusetts:  Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.

O’Sullivan, A., Sexton, T. A., & Sheffrin, S. M., (2007). Property Taxes and Tax Revolts:  The Legacy of Proposition 13. Cambridge, Massachusetts:  Cambridge University Press. 

Tiebout, C. M., (1956). A Pure Theory of Local Expenditures, The Journal of Political Economy, 64, 416-424.

The Charter School Advantage: Operating as a Deregulated Autonomous Public School

Sunday, June 28th, 2009

The proponents of charter schools (Newman, 1998) purport that charter schools are the answer to what ails our public school system.  The rationale supporting how charter schools can provide an education that is superior in quality to that offered by conventional public schools is that they are deregulated autonomous public schools that are granted extreme freedom in how they choose to innovate, experiment, manage operations, “respond to their customers”, govern themselves and enroll as well as educate their students (Sugarman, 2002).  “In return for this autonomy, charter schools usually are asked to demonstrate academic outcome results for their children, but that too is supposed to be measured without too much interference with the school’s independence” (Kemerer, 1999, cited in Sugarman, 2002).  The core elements of a charter school’s success are its ability to function with autonomy and deregulation, both of which are regularly denied to conventional public schools.  The solution to what ails our public school system, therefore, is to enable our traditional public schools to operate with the same degree of autonomy and deregulation as that granted to charter schools.   


Charter schools are public schools that are funded primarily by local property taxes but are granted freedom from many state and federal mandates and restrictions so that they can provide innovative and cutting-edge teaching and learning.  As a result, charter schools function independently from their host district’s board of education under a charter granted by the state (New Jersey Department of Education, 2001).  According to the New Jersey Department of Education, as soon as the charter is approved by the Commissioner of Education, the school is governed by a board of trustees authorized by the State Board of Education and the charter school is thereby granted all the necessary powers to execute and implement its charter. 


By agreeing to the contract with the state, a charter school receives public funding with significantly less regulation but it is also expected to provide a quality of education that exceeds that of a conventional public school.  But despite their public school charter and property tax funding, charter schools operate independently of their local taxpayers’ input, feedback and control.  “While charter schools emphasize that they are a new form of public schools, they are increasingly appearing and behaving like private schools” (Horn and Miron, 2000, cited in Bracey, 2002). 


According to the New Jersey Department of Education, however, a charter school “must outline how the school will meet the New Jersey Core Curriculum Content Standards” and “Cross-Content Workplace Readiness Skills” plus all “teachers, administrators, and professional staff must have New Jersey State certification” (New Jersey Department of Education, 2005, cited in Bredehoft, 2005).  While charter schools operate independently, the local board of education “must also provide transportation for charter school students residing in its district under the same terms and conditions for district students attending public schools” (Bredehoft, 2005).  Also, “a charter school may operate within a ‘region of residence’, comprised of a district or multiple districts identified in the charter school’s application, and must have a physical residence in one of those districts” (New Jersey Department of Education, 2005, cited in Bredehoft, 2005). 


A charter school is funded based on its enrollment primarily by the revenues it receives through its local board of education.  According to the New Jersey Department of Education, the host district’s board of education must pay the charter school ninety percent of its average per pupil share of the annual operating budget for the specific grade level of each student (Bredehoft, 2005).  Although charter schools can not charge tuition, they are eligible to receive federal and state funds.  As a result, it seems as if funding is siphoned from the host public school district to the charter school without the direct or indirect approval of local taxpayers. 


Because local property taxes as well as state and federal financial aid abide by a zero-sum process, all funds transferred from a conventional public school to a charter school result in a cut in funding that can not be recouped.  A conventional public school must cut non-mandate protected programs and services such as regular education in order to make up for the lost revenues.  In addition, because state and federal governments either under fund or do not fund their mandates, conventional public schools are forced to pay for these shortfalls while charter schools are often not subject to the same regulations or to the same extent as their host district. 


Charter schools enjoy many other advantages over their conventional counterparts.  Charter schools can limit their enrollment which enables them to have lower student-teacher ratios and forces conventional public schools to educate the majority of students in comparatively larger class sizes.  Charter schools do not have to enroll students after the beginning of the school year which enables them to have much more stable enrollments than conventional public schools.  The scarcity of unions and tenure in charter schools also represents another set of cost advantages. 


The extent to which charter schools can limit the number of students who qualify for special education, are from low-income or poverty level families, or are English language learners (Levay, 2009) would force traditional public schools to educate a disproportionate number of these needy and at-risk students who are much more expensive to educate.  Such a practice would minimize costs for the charter school in the district while it would correspondingly increase the public school district’s expenses.  In discussing his study of Michigan’s charter schools Bracey (2002) concludes “And, perhaps most significant, the student bodies look more and more like private schools: Fewer minority and special needs students are enrolled.”  


Unlike charter schools that can cap or otherwise more effectively limit their enrollment and, thereby, limit the cost of their raw materials, traditional public schools have to enroll all of the students in the district who wish to attend and, therefore, can not control the cost of their raw materials.  This cost advantage in favor of charter schools is highlighted below in the “blueberry epiphany” (Cuban, 2004) experienced by former CEO, Mr. Jamie Vollmer, because as the woman from the audience responds to Mr. Vollmer “… we can never send back our blueberries. We take them all!” and, thus, traditional public schools can not control the quality of their raw materials. 


“If I ran my business the way you people operate your schools, I wouldn’t be in business very long!”  I stood before an audience filled with outraged teachers who were becoming angrier by the minute.  My speech had entirely consumed their precious 90 minutes of in-service training.  Their initial icy glares had turned to restless agitation.  You could cut the hostility with a knife.


I represented a group of business people dedicated to improving public schools.  I was an executive at an ice cream company that became famous in the 1980’s when People magazine chose its blueberry flavor as the “Best Ice Cream in America.” 


I was convinced of two things.  First, public schools needed to change; they were archaic selecting and sorting mechanisms designed for the Industrial Age and out of step with the needs of our emerging “knowledge society.”  Second, educators were a major part of the problem:  they resisted change, hunkered down in their feathered nests, protected by tenure and shielded by a bureaucratic monopoly.  They needed to look to business.  We knew how to produce quality.  Zero defects!  Total quality management!  Continuous improvement! 


In retrospect, the speech was perfectly balanced—equal parts ignorance and arrogance.  As soon as I finished, a woman’s hand shot up … She began quietly.  “We are told sir, that you manage a company that makes good ice cream.”  I smugly replied, “Best ice cream in America, ma’am.”  “How nice,” she said.  “Is it rich and smooth?”  “Sixteen percent butterfat,” I crowed.  “Premium ingredients?” she inquired.  “Super premium!  Nothing but triple-A.”  I was on a roll.  I never saw the next line coming.


“Mr. Vollmer,” she said, leaning forward with a wicked eyebrow raised to the sky, “when you are standing on your receiving dock and you see an inferior shipment of blueberries arrive, what do you do?”  In the silence of that room, I could hear the trap snap.  I knew I was dead meat, but I wasn’t going to lie.  “I send them back.” 


“That’s right!” she barked, “and we can never send back our blueberries.  We take them big, small, rich, poor, gifted, exceptional, abused, frightened, confident, homeless, rude, and brilliant.  We take them with attention deficit disorder, junior rheumatoid arthritis, and English as their second language.  We take them all!  Every one!  And that, Mr. Vollmer, is why it’s not a business, it’s a school!”  In an explosion, all 290 teachers, principals, bus drivers, aids, custodians, and secretaries jumped to their feet and yelled, “Yeah!  Blueberries!  Blueberries!”


And so began my long transformation.  Since then, I have learned that a school is not a business.  Schools are unable to control the quality of their raw material, they are dependent upon the vagaries of politics for a reliable revenue stream, and they are constantly mauled by a howling horde of disparate, completing customer groups that would send the best CEO screaming into the night” (pp. 3-4). 


Charter schools enroll students who would otherwise attend the local public schools thereby forcing traditional public school districts to cut educational programs and services correspondingly.  But if a traditional school district lost a disproportionate number of students and terminated a proportionate number of teachers and aids, it would not be able to make up many of the operating expenses associated with those students who left to attend the local charter school.  Charter schools, therefore, may seem to provide a higher quality of education than conventional public schools but only as a result of the revenue and cost advantages built into their charters. 


Because the majority of state and federal financial aid is in some way related to enrollment levels, a public school district would stand to lose aid in direct proportion to the reduction in its enrollment caused by charter schools.  This would force cuts to non-mandate protected programs such as regular education.  The double whammy of reduced state and federal financial aid as well as forced cuts to regular education would be especially distressful for public school districts.  Therefore, having local property taxes finance charter schools siphons away crucial revenues from traditional public schools.   


The proponents of charter schools espouse their competition with traditional public schools as helping to improve the quality of public education.  But charter schools serve only a fraction of the school community while diverting scarce funds from their host local school districts that educate the overwhelming majority of students.  This unequal playing field levels down the quality of public education. 


To date, the general public largely seems to have not fully understood that charter schools are neither traditional public schools nor the extent to which charter schools are publicly funded but without local taxpayer control.  While such a misunderstanding might have resulted from the lack of resonance of charter schools on the general public’s radar screen, surely it will evaporate rapidly as President Obama and U. S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, actively promote the development and expansion of charter schools nationwide (Maxwell, 2009).  Once the public becomes more aware of the real definition of charter schools and the extent to which they are funded with local property taxes, there will most likely be many questions raised.     





Bracey, G. W. (2002).  The War Against America’s Public Schools: Privatizing Schools, Commercializing Education, Boston: Allyn and Bacon. 

Bredehoft, J. M. (2005).  New Jersey Charter Schools: History and Information, New Jersey Community Capital, 1(1), Retrieved from 

Cuban, L. (2004).  The Blackboard and the Bottom Line:  Why Schools Can’t Be Businesses, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: Harvard University Press. 

Horn, J. and Miron, G. (2000).  An Evaluation of the Michigan Charter School Initiative: Performance, Accountability, and Impact, Kalamazoo: The Evaluation Center, Western Michigan University. 

Kemerer, F. R. (1999) School Choice Accountability in School Choice and Social Controversy, Sugarman, S. D. and Kemerer, F. R. (Editors), (174-211).  Washington, D.C.:  Brookings Institution Press. 

Levay, W. J. (2009). Put the Public Back in “Public Charter School”, Edwise, Retrieved from  

Maxwell, L. A. (2009). Obama’s Team Advocacy Boosts Charter Movement, Education Week, 28(35), 1, 24-25. 

New Jersey Department of Education (2001).  Charter School Evaluation Report, Retrieved from 

New Jersey Department of Education (2005).  New Jersey Charter School Application 2005, Retrieved from

Newman, M. (1998).  New Jersey Rejects Challenge to Charter School Program, The New York Times, April 2, 1998.

Sugarman, S. D. (2002).  Charter School Funding Issues, Education Policy Analysis Archives, 10(34).  Retrieved from  


Local School Districts mean Better Education

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

Is bigger really better?  This is the crucial question facing New Jersey’s schools as the state moves toward a consolidated county-wide school district framework.  The proposed consolidation would eliminate local school district administrative personnel and centralize the operation of each of the county’s schools within one county-wide district such as the model used in Maryland (Enlighten-New Jersey, 2006).  As a result, all decisions concerning local school functions would be made at the county level with little local recourse. 


While consolidation may sound tempting, because it is based on a presumption of economies-of-scale leading to assumed lower operating costs as well as improved administrative efficiencies which, in turn, are expected to result in lower property taxes plus greater parental engagement, the reality is much different, however.  It has been shown that county-wide districts often result in increased costs, increased bureaucracy, students being so remote that parents are less engaged, and increased special interest group control of the agenda, curriculum as well as the distribution of funds (Wenders, 2005).  


County-wide school districts tend to expand the county departments of education into unwieldy bureaucracies (Wenders, 2005).  These bureaucracies often become so large that their administrative costs exceed the combined cost of the local administrative personnel, including but not limited to superintendents, business administrators and directors of special education, they are supposed to replace.  Moreover, because these county departments of education are staffed largely by political appointees, they tend to operate without the essential public feedback that is the backbone of local boards of education. 


At the outset, New Jersey’s legislators used Maryland’s experience (School Board Notes, 2006) as a benchmark for the expected savings and efficiencies for New Jersey’s consolidation.  However, during her testimony to a panel of New Jersey state senators, Ms. Marie S. Bilik (2008), Executive Director of the New Jersey School Boards Association, demonstrated that the total state-wide administrative costs of the Maryland school system exceed those of New Jersey’s.  While testifying in front of the New Jersey Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee on March 20, 2008, Ms. Bilik referenced an U.S. Department of Education report (2006), “A recent report by the U.S. Department of Education ranks New Jersey 38th among the states and District of Columbia in the percentage of current expenditures devoted to administration.  That means 37 other states – including Maryland and Pennsylvania – spend more on administration than New Jersey.”  In addition, enrollment in New Jersey’s public schools was over fifty percent greater than that of Maryland during the same period and continues to exceed Maryland’s enrollment by similar margins.  Thus, rather than removing administrative costs, the Maryland model has actually added costs and administrative overhead (Bilik, 2008). 


While New Jersey has not yet moved to a complete county-wide model, its recent school consolidation legislation has significantly increased the power of the politically appointed Executive County Superintendent.  Among these expanded powers is the ability to compel the creation or expansion of regional school districts with the ultimate goal of consolidating the regionalized districts into one county-wide school district in every county.  New Jersey’s county-wide school districts would be run by Executive County Superintendents, political appointees, who would not be accountable to the voters but rather would serve at the discretion of partisan political forces. 


But consolidation of local school districts into county level districts also tends to result in more of a traditional military-type command-and-control decision making process rather than a process controlled by local school districts with the active participation of local constituencies most notably local parents.  In a command-and-control model, while the state and federal policy makers develop the overall strategy for policy implementation (Fusarelli and Cooper, 2009), it is the county-wide school districts that combine these policies with their political directives to determine the curriculum, priorities and budget for each school.  However, because the county level is too distant from where education actually takes place and is more easily influenced by special interest groups, the result is often less parental engagement. 


Concentrating the school system at the local district level rather than at the county level will not only enable more resources to be focused on those most affected by education, the students, but also enable those most intimately involved in providing education, the teachers, to provide better instruction.  But the rise of county departments of education will also cause the local school districts to spend less time on students as well as parents because more time will be required to be spent on bureaucratic obligations thereby decreasing parental engagement which is a key component in improving student performance.  It is the local districts that not only are closest to the students but also have the necessary local expertise to most effectively decide how to provide a quality education. 


Indeed, it seems as if the reason for preventing or eliminating county-wide school districts is embodied in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case.  In Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court not only ruled against school racial segregation by striking down the practice of separate but equal but also established the right of all students to attend their neighborhood school.  Consistent with this ruling, it is essential that every child be able to attend their neighborhood school within a local school district free from the burden of county level bureaucracies so that the schools are better able to concentrate on improving every student’s performance. 


Consolidating local school districts into larger county-wide districts removes decision making authority from those most affected by educational policy decisions:  the individual student as well as his/her parents, school and district.  It also concentrates policy formulation and decision making at a centralized level where special interest groups have greater leverage on the policy makers and, as a result, greater control of the policy outcomes including local school budgets.  Moreover, consolidation of local school districts into county level districts while fewer in number tends to result in higher state-wide total administrative costs due to the lack of accountability, more political patronage and reduced local parental input. 




Bilik, M. S. (2008).  Testimony: FY09 State Budget, Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee, Senate Annex, Committee Room 4, Trenton, New Jersey, March 20, 2008.   

Enlighten-New Jersey, (2006).  Is School Consolidation The Answer To New Jersey’s Property Tax Crisis?  August 9, 2006, Retrieved from 

Fusarelli, B. C. and Cooper, B. S., (2009).  The Rising State: How State Power Is Transforming Our Nation’s Schools, State University of New York Press, Albany.   

School Board Notes, (2006)  New Jersey vs. Maryland: The Facts,  September 14, 2006, Retrieved from Trenton, New Jersey: New Jersey School Boards Association. 

U. S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics (2006).  Common Core of Data, August, 2006.  

Wenders, J. T., (2005)  Deconsolidate Oregon’s School Districts  March 21, 2005, Retrieved from 





Why Attending School Matters: The Dire Consequences of Truancy and Dropping Out

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2009

Why does attending school matter?  A student’s attending class matters because it is essential to achievement in school as well as in adult life.  Also, because truant students can not learn as well as those attend class, it is much more difficult for them to succeed.  As Trujillo (2006) states, “truant youths are often absent from school for such a period of time that it is difficult if not impossible for them to catch up.”  While students with regular attendance tend to learn such job related skills as punctuality, completing assignments, and meeting deadlines, truant students tend to dropout which adversely impacts their lifetime income earning potential.  Trujillo (2006) links truancy with a high probability of dropping out by referring to Baker.      

Students with the highest truancy rates have the lowest academic achievement rates, and because truants are the youth most likely to drop out of school, they have high dropout rates as well.  The consequences of dropping out of school are well documented.  School dropouts have significantly fewer job prospects, make lower salaries, and are more often unemployed than youth who stay in school (Baker, 2001). 


It may be just common sense that attending school enables students not only to learn but also to succeed while the likelihood of academic achievement or success in adulthood for students who are truant or dropout is rather low.  And it shouldn’t be surprising that research supports this. 

            In today’s knowledge-based economy in which most jobs require at least a college degree or even post-graduate study, the employment opportunities for the relatively less well educated, such as those without a high school diploma, are slim.  In addition, many low wage jobs have been outsourced to other nations.  But it is not only the costs to the dropout that are high, the costs to society are as equally severe because dropouts are more likely to be unemployed, underemployed, or dependent on governmental services or charities as well as to be imprisoned during their lifetime.  As Trujillo (2006) summarizes:  

Truancy affects the student, school, and community.  The cost of truancy reduction programs is inconsequential compared to the societal cost of high school failure and juvenile delinquency.  School failure is so costly that there need only be minor success with truancy reduction programs in order to achieve a positive payback (Heilbrunn and Seeley, 2003). Truant students are far more likely not to graduate from high school and are thereby much more likely to become a burden on society, requiring taxpayer-supported welfare programs, such as income assistance, Medicaid, Food Stamps, and Women, Infants, and Children (Baker, 2001).  High school dropouts are more than twice as likely to be in poverty, and two-and-a-half times more likely to be on welfare than a high school graduate (Baker, 2001).  Not only are truant youths less likely to graduate from school, but truancy has been established as a risk factor for substance abuse, delinquency, and teen pregnancy, resulting in increased tax dollars spent on additional police forces and social services (Gonzales, Richards, and Harmacek, 2002). 



Although the degree to which a student attends school is perhaps the most important factor in determining whether the student succeeds not only in school but also in adult life, research suggests that other variables could also play a critical role.  The United States General Accounting Office (GAO) summarized many studies of truancy and dropping out: 


Research has shown that multiple factors are associated with dropping out, and that dropping out of school is a long-term process of disengagement that occurs over time and begins in the earliest grades.  NCES and private research organizations have identified two types of factors—those associated with families and those related to an individual’s experience in school—that are related to dropping out.   For example, students from low income, single-parent, and less-educated families, often enter school less prepared than children from more affluent, better educated families, and subsequently drop out at a much higher rate than other students do.


Factors related to an individual’s experience in school often can be identified soon after a child begins school.  These factors, such as low grades, absenteeism, disciplinary problems, frequently changing schools, and being retained two or more grades, are all found at a much higher than average rate in students that drop out (GAO 2002).   


A number of these findings are emphasized by Coleman (1990) such as that the background and family circumstances of the student have a great influence on whether the student is truant or becomes a dropout.  In addition, Coleman (1990) finds that the “social composition of the student body” within a school is significantly related to student achievement and, therefore, to the tendency of a student to drop out. 


Because the marketplace for employment is now governed by a knowledge-based economy, all students need to be well-educated, highly literate and technologically fluent.  A quality education is, therefore, both the backbone of a successful economy as well as the key to individual success.  Thus, making it essential that every student is well educated especially those students who are truant and, therefore, at risk of dropping out. 




Baker, M. L., Sigmon, J. N., & Nugent, M. E. (2001).  Truancy reduction: Keeping students in school. Juvenile Justice Bulletin. Washington, D. C.:  Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. 

Coleman, J. S. (1990).  Equality and Achievement in Education.  San Francisco:  Westview Press.

Gonzales, R, Richards, K., & Harmacek, M. (2002).  Youth Out of School:  Linking Absence to Delinquency.  Denver, Colorado:  The Colorado Foundation for Families and Children. 

Heilbrunn, J. & Seeley, K. (2003).  Saving Money Saving Youth:  The Financial Impact of Keeping Kids in School.  Denver, Colorado:  The Colorado Foundation for Families and Children. 

Trujillo, L. A., (2006).  School Truancy:  A Case Study of a Successful Truancy Reduction Model in the Public Schools.  University of Colorado Journal of Juvenile Law and Policy, Volume 10.  69-95.     

United States General Accounting Office (2002).  School Dropouts: Education Could Play a Stronger Role in Identifying and Disseminating Promising Prevention Strategies. United States General Accounting Office, GAO-02-240.