Posts Tagged ‘NCLB’

Accountability: An Argument for Local School Districts

Sunday, January 24th, 2010

During the past 40 years, the locus of school district control has gradually shifted from a tradition of home rule or local control to state control.  Control over the decisions governing such areas as funding, budgeting, human resources, standards, capital projects, operations, curriculum and assessment that were once the sole province of local boards of education has been superseded largely by the state.  Increased state control has reversed the traditional operating philosophy of school systems that was based on limiting the power of any centralized remote governmental entity could exert over local school districts.  Historically, Americans wanted school decision making to be as close as possible to those citizens who were most affected.  School district residents realized that by being able to control what and how their children were taught as well as how and who administered and governed their schools plus how their taxes were used that they were able to enjoy the maximum of democratic accountability. 


The rising power of the state (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 establishing financial neutrality as the basis for school funding.  States remedied the disparities among districts with the infusion of incremental state funds and regulation.  Subsequent rulings focused on adequacy and 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 was deemed to go 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. 


The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) accelerated the trend toward adequacy with its national educational standards. Under NCLB, the federal government holds states and school districts accountable for improving performance.  As a result, states are forced to define an adequate level of student and school achievement as well as the level of financial resources that would be constitutionally adequate.  NCLB, therefore, marked a pronounced policy making shift to an accountability model within which the allocation of school district financial and human resources was made largely at the state rather than the local level largely according to federal guidelines. 


But the consequences of centralizing most of the control over the allocation of a school district’s financial and human resources at the state level gave rise to many unintended obstacles to improving accountability. Chief among them was the contradictory challenge of trying to hold local school districts accountable to standards made remotely at the state level that did not reflect and often conflicted with unique local educational requirements and priorities. As a result, when states imposed a one-size-fits-all approach to local school district resource allocation, state funds were not used as efficiently as they could have been.  School systems would be more accountable if decision making over financial and human resources was made at the local district level. 


A local school district can improve student and school performance best when the district is empowered to allocate its financial and human resources according to its educational plan rather than being required to follow one-size-fits-all state directives. The local school district would have all the tools it would need to hold schools and students accountable because it could make real time decisions based on specific measurable performance goals for each school and student.  The local school district is the most qualified to continually calibrate local performance goals because only the local school district can combine a keen understanding of local educational necessities with the timely and specific assessment of individual school and student achievement. State control is too remote which causes not only inappropriate delays but also decisions that tend to be inconsistent with the district’s unique educational plan.  


State control especially over a district’s financial and human resource use creates barriers for achieving accountability. When a local school district is limited by the state’s one-size-fits-all approach, it is prevented from developing more innovative approaches to accountability.  In order for local school districts to innovate, they must be empowered to deploy more effective approaches for increasing accountability that are best suited to local needs. Improving accountability, therefore, requires the adaptation of new models for the control structure of local public schools that are largely free of state control. 


In response to the shortcomings of state dominated local school systems, communities need greater local control over their schools so that they can benefit from increased accountability.  Because a local school district’s control structure affects how all of the school system’s stakeholders combine to produce a quality education, school districts nationwide are searching for the most appropriate local control structure model that will provide the highest level of accountability.  As a result, local school districts are increasingly adapting a local control structure that provides the maximum accountability possible according to their unique characteristics.  What matters most in terms of maximizing accountability is that a school district employs the model that fosters the greatest public support for the maximum public funding of its public schools.  




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


Data: The DNA of Education-based Decision Making

Thursday, March 12th, 2009

Policy makers, administrators and educators at all levels need sound data with which to make decisions.  Quality data enable decisions to be made with greater accuracy.  But the growing need for student achievement in the current standards-based environment has placed increasing demands on all of those involved with K to 12 education to obtain sound data with which not only to more fully understand their school systems but also to improve the quality of education. 


While there seems to be no lack of school-based data, what seems to be missing is data that are generally agreed upon to be sound or of good quality.  But discussions of data quality and their use with models usually brings to mind the adage of “garbage-in, garbage-out” because the quality of decisions made, the outcomes, is directly related to the quality of data used, the inputs.  According to Kowalski, Lasley, and Mahoney (2008) “unless those entering the data use exactly the same metrics, measures, or procedures, the realities of one school can be quite different from the realities of another, even though the data may look similar.  Because all fifty states use different tests, measures, and approaches, a real absence of common metrics exists and that void makes it difficult for educators, even psychometrically astute ones, to make good judgments based on published data.”  


The key to school improvement is improved data-relevance.  Therefore, it is crucial to understand how data are collected, aggregated, analyzed, reported and used.  But this may sound easier than it is because data come in many forms, at many levels, and is often unconnected or is connected from the individual district, school, classroom, teacher and student.  There are also different methods for data collection, aggregation, analysis and reporting. 


DNA is defined as the location where your body’s cells store coded information and the pairing of the DNA bases in the middle of the two strands or helices helps to keep the coded “data” intact.  Because data, like DNA, are so intertwined in the formulation of educational policy such as decision-making for funding formulas, the double helix that forms the structure of DNA might be the best way to depict our five-level model.  The DNA diagram below depicts how its coded “data” or information flows vertically, up and down its two congruent helices, as well as horizontally, across the base pairs. 





In our model the vertical dimension relate each level to the one above and below it.  The vertical dimension represents the ways in which the data bubble up and down between and among the various levels.  Using DNA’s double helix to exemplify our model, individual student test score data move up from the student in the classroom for collection at the school level before being aggregated at the district level and reported to the state Department of Education where the data are analyzed and transmitted to the federal level for nation-wide use.  The federal data, in turn, are disseminated back to the individual states for their use and, in turn, the states provide the information to their school districts for policy making purposes among other things.  The districts share the information with the schools within the district so that improved curriculum, operational and program student-centric decisions can be made. 


Just as the “base pairs” of DNA intersect the two “sugar phosphate backbones” or its two helices, our model’s horizontal dimensions form the important intersections with its two helices or data flow “backbones.”  Our model’s horizontal dimensions include the relationships, comparisons and uses within a level such as:  


  • Federal level:  Comparisons of the American educational system with those of other nations.
  • State level:  Comparisons of school systems between and among states.
  • District level:  Comparisons of local education authorities (LEA) or school districts with one another especially ones that share similar characteristics. 
  • School level:  Comparisons of different schools either within a state or across a number of states. 
  • Student level:  Comparisons of students according to various factors such as socio-economic status, race, gender, subject matter, and grade level. 


The dimensions and intersections of our model resemble those of DNA as data flow vertically, up and down the two congruent helices, as well as horizontally, across the levels as shown below for our model: 














This study poses a five-level model for data building and data use that is intended not only to help gather the right types and “levels” of information but also to put the information where it is needed most and best used.  It examines the five key levels of education-based decisions as highlighted above, identifying the availability and limitations of data at those levels as well as how the data analysis might affect education at that level and throughout the system.  While decision-making depends on data, it is important to explain the limitations at each level and what might be done (for good or for bad) by creating more information at that level. 



Level 1:  Federal Data and Decision Making:  


The United States is beginning to create a national system of schools, with national accountability and nationally as well as internationally comparative data.  This is further necessitating more national standards, alignment of curriculum across the states, and new reliable data on how America’s schools are performing.  All nations of the world have information on their schools and many provide comparative studies.   


Federal level data are actually an aggregation of state level data such as data collected according to the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) often referred to as “The Nation’s Report Card” and other state-level achievement tests.   “The Nation’s Report Card” is an aggregation and an analysis of the NAEP test results and the NCLB Act requires the NAEP testing of all students nation-wide in the near future.  NAEP provides a measure of how students in grades 4, 8 and 12 nation-wide are performing in mathematics, science, and language arts. 


The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) holds a wealth of information on schools and student performance nation-wide particularly student demographic data and school district financial data.  The NCES also provides analyses of its data in such publications as the Education Statistics Quarterly, the annual Conditions of Education report, the Nation’s Report Card, the Digest of Education Statistics, and reports on selected current educational issues.


Level 2:  State Data and Decision Making:


States, through their departments of education, collect, aggregate and report data to the federal level as well as other levels through measures such as the NCLB, NAEP, and in New Jersey, the New Jersey Assessment of Skills and Knowledge (NJASK.)  The NJASK is a state assessment of public school student achievement in grades three to seven which is administered by the New Jersey Department of Education.  The NJASK is defined by the New Jersey Core Curriculum Content Standards (CCCS) in language arts, mathematics and science that was implemented to help meet the requirements of NCLB.  The NJASK test is given for up to two hours per day covering a three to five day time frame.  The questions are either multiple choice or ones requiring a written response. 


The New Jersey CCCS provide local school districts with benchmarks for student achievement of the skills the State of New Jersey expects its public school students to acquire during their K to 12 education in nine content areas.  These benchmarks set the levels which students should attain in the following areas: 


  • Visual and performing arts
  • Health and physical education
  • Language arts literacy
  • Mathematics
  • Science
  • Social studies
  • World languages
  • Technology
  • Career education, consumer, family, and life skills


The CCCS are “outcome statements” that form the basis of “strands” and “Cumulative Progress Indicators” (CPI).  Strands are defined as tools to help teachers identify content and skills.  Each strand is composed of a number of CPIs.  The CPIs provide the specific content and skills to be taught at the appropriate grade levels. 


Level 3:  District Data and Decision Making:


In all states except Hawaii, the Local Education Authority (LEA) or school district is the major decision-making setting.  The overwhelming majority of districts elect boards of education who in turn hire the superintendent as well as other staff and operate the school system within the LEA or district.  Hence, data gathered, analyzed and acted upon at the district level are critical to the system of control and accountability. 


Districts play a central role in collecting data as well as in using data to improve student achievement.  While nearly all districts nation-wide generate some sort of district “Report Card,” districts in New Jersey are key to the process of collecting, aggregating, reporting and using data through such measures as the: 


  • Grade Eight Proficiency Assessment (GEPA)
  • High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA)
  • Advanced Placement (AP) program and tests
  • New Jersey Quality Single Accountability Continuum (NJQSAC)


A variety of tests are used to assess public school student achievement as well as to help improve public education through data collection in New Jersey school districts.  The GEPA is a standardized test administered to all New Jersey eighth graders on several subjects and is very similar to the HSPA.  As such, the GEPA is often referred to as the “preparation test” for the HSPA.  The HSPA is a standardized test administered during a four day period to all New Jersey high school students in their eleventh grade or junior year on language arts literacy and mathematics.  Public school students must pass the HSPA exams to graduate from high school in New Jersey.  The Advanced Placement (AP) program provides high school students with a way in which to earn college level credit depending how well they perform on the subject matter exams given for the AP level courses they attend. 


The system for monitoring and evaluating New Jersey’s public school districts is the New Jersey Quality Single Accountability Continuum (NJQSAC) which is often referred to as the “QSAC.”  QSAC replaced the Quality Annual Assurance Report (QAAR) beginning with the 2006-07 school year.  As a result it shifted the focus from primarily compliance to district, individual school and student improvement.  The QSAC combines a wide range of state monitoring requirements with those of the federal government into a “single” system of monitoring and evaluating school districts.  All New Jersey school districts must perform an annual self-assessment according to five key components:   


  • Instruction
  • Personnel
  • Financial management
  • Operations
  • Governance


The QSAC addressed the problem of a large number of significantly different and often conflicting state and federal monitoring and evaluating requirements.  The QSAC simplified the monitoring of district performance by forging one set of standards for all school districts as well as enabling districts to make their own adjustments more readily.  It also enables more informed school district comparisons through the use of a “continuum” on which all districts are rated. 


Level 4:  School Data and Decision Making: 


The school is the primary working unit for education and as such it is also the primary decision-making unit.  Many educators, central office staff and policy makers tend to believe that those closest to the classroom because of their daily access to students and their performance have a more in depth understanding of school-centric and student-centric data.  Therefore, those at the school level may be better positioned to make more informed decisions concerning educational programs and services than those at other levels especially at the state and federal Departments of Education.   Examples of school level measures include school “Report Cards” and Annual Yearly Progress (AYP).  


Level 5:  Student Data and Decision Making: 


Ultimately, the level of decision-making and analysis is the student:  the child is taught, supported, tested and reviewed in many ways.  Data are collected on students according to many factors including but not limited to subject matter, grade level, socio-economic status, race, gender, Limited English Proficiency (LEP), Advanced Placement as well as special education and Individual Education Plans (IEP).  





Kowaski, T. J., Lasley II, T. J., & Mahoney, J. W. (2008), Data-Driven Decisions and School Leadership: Best Practices for School Improvement, Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

State of New Jersey, Department of Education, web site. United States Library of Medicine, DNA Double Helix diagram.  

Smaller is Better when it comes to Running Our Schools

Thursday, January 29th, 2009

Since the publication of A Nation at Risk, there have been numerous efforts to try to find the right mixture of ways to improve student achievement while lowering the cost of education involving five major policy making levels (i.e., federal, state, district, school and classroom/student.)  Many of these efforts have looked at the decision making process and how politics impacts that process in terms of the educational policies that result.  Using test scores as a measure of student achievement and local property taxes as a measure of the cost of education, a number of states as well as the federal government have advocated through various means for larger class sizes as well as for school consolidations.  Federal and many state governments have also advocated for the centralization of policy making at their respective levels as ways in which not only to improve student achievement but also to lower the cost of providing education. 


These federal and state level stakeholders whose motto might conceivably be described as “bigger is better” seem to base their belief on presumed economies-of-scale that will lead to lower operating costs and thereby lower property taxes as well as to perhaps improving test scores through the application of nationally determined standards at the state level.  One of their arguments seems to be based on the belief that having larger class sizes requires fewer teachers which in turn lowers operating costs.  In addition, larger class sizes mean fewer class rooms would be used thereby minimizing the demand for new or expanded school facilities.  Another argument advocates for school district consolidation as a way in which to achieve improved operating efficiency primarily through presumed lower administrative costs. 


National standards such as those imposed by the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) with its mandated tests are also seen as a way in which to drive the formulation of educational policy at the federal and state levels while the federal level includes an aggregation of state data.  Such national educational policy is believed to help “raise the bar” for student performance.  While NCLB is mandated by the federal government, the states force their school districts to comply with its regulations.  The NCLB test scores are used to determine adequate yearly progress (AYP) for students, schools and districts alike. 


But the combination of federally-determined educational policy implemented through state governments and departments of education has often resulted in decisions seemingly made more in favor of special interest groups than local schools as well as in higher costs.  Consolidating local school districts into countywide or extremely large regional districts removes decision making authority from those levels most affected by educational policy decisions:  the individual student, school and district.  It also concentrates policy formulation and decision making at centralized levels where special interests have greater leverage on the policy makers and, as a result, greater control of the policy outcomes.  Moreover, consolidation of local school districts into county level districts while fewer in number with supposedly less combined administrative expense has often resulted in higher state-wide total administrative costs due to the lack of accountability, excessive political patronage hiring at the county level and reduced local taxpayer input. 


Because the federal and state levels are too distant from where education actually takes place and are more easily influenced by special interest groups, accountability declines at these levels where it is needed most.  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 model.  In this Theory X model the federal level develops the strategy for policy implementation, the state governments and their departments of education translate the strategy into tactics for deployment, and the school districts are responsible for making sure that the federal and state mandates are implemented accordingly at the individual school and student level. 


Because countywide or regional school district consolidations lead to increased education costs, lower student achievement especially as measured by test scores and less accountability such combinations should be prevented.  Eliminating units of consolidation such as county level departments of education will not only remove an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy and cut administrative costs but also improve accountability particularly to local taxpayers as well as to parents.  Moreover, without county level departments of education or large regionalized school districts overburdening our educational systems, our schools will be better able to provide quality instruction. 


The majority of research on class size has demonstrated that when qualified teachers teach students in smaller class sizes, the students not only learn more but also these students retain this advantage over other students who attend larger classes.  One leading study is the longitudinal class size reduction initiative conducted over a number of years in Tennessee called the Student Teacher Achievement Ratio (STAR) project.  The STAR project demonstrated that students, who were enrolled in small classes beginning with kindergarten and continuing through third grade, were significantly more likely than their counterparts who attended larger classes, to: 

  • Demonstrate better reading and mathematics skills
  • Complete more advanced mathematics, science and English courses
  • Complete high school 
  • Graduate high school on time 
  • Graduate with honors. 


The STAR project also found that even after the students returned to larger classes in the fourth through eighth grades those students who attended smaller class sizes for their first three or four years maintained an advantage over students who had attended the larger classes from kindergarten through third grade.  The findings of the STAR project are echoed by other projects such as Wisconsin’s Student Achievement Guarantee in Education (SAGE) project, which was a statewide initiative in Wisconsin that increased student achievement, and Indiana’s Project Prime Time.  In addition, the research demonstrates that having a smaller class size not only increases student achievement but also helps to minimize the achievement gap among different groups of students particularly among majority and minority students.  


“Smaller is better” and it should not be surprising that research supports this.  Having fewer students in the classroom enables the teacher to dedicate more time to each child.  Consequently, students pay more attention to class work and participate more in academics.  Because the students are more involved with their studies they learn more and behave better.  Is it any wonder then that test scores are significantly higher for students who attend small classes?   Based upon the findings of the STAR project and other studies there seems to be little doubt that students taught in small classes enjoy significant and lasting educational advantages. 


The greater is the shift to larger class sizes nationwide, the more teachers will probably be let go.  However, larger class sizes often lead to lower test scores and make it more difficult for students, schools and districts to achieve adequate yearly progress (AYP) as required by NCLB.  As a result, school districts are likely to be subjected to many of the more stringent penalties of NCLB.  This will further reduce the financial resources available to support quality education and contribute to a downward spiral of education nationwide.    


Concentrating decision making at the district level rather than at the county, state or federal level will increase accountability not only by focusing more resources on those most affected by education policy, the students, but also by enabling those who are the most intimately involved in providing education, the school districts, to provide improved instruction.  It is the districts that not only are closest to the school systems and students but also have the necessary expertise to most effectively decide how best to provide a quality education. 


But the greatest reduction of our state’s property tax burden would be to eliminate the unnecessary and overly expensive layer of county government (i.e., Freeholders) as the majority of states have already done.  For example, Connecticut had a system similar to the one in New Jersey in which Connecticut not only had the Freeholder level of government but also had the counties involved in the running of local schools as New Jersey does through such legislation as A4S which created the Office of the Executive County Superintendent.  Because those associated with both levels of county government, Freeholder government as well as the County Department of Education, were not only too far removed from local taxpayers but also too expensive, Connecticut’s solution to cutting property taxes while improving the resources available for education was to eliminate county government. 


However, there is perhaps an even greater irony within debate over how best to improve student achievement while minimizing property taxes.  The dilemma facing our schools is that while districts must comply with the requirements of unfunded and under funded county, state and federal mandates, too many school districts are forced to spend much more to meet these requirements than they receive in combined financial aid from all county, state and federal governmental sources.  


Creating Self-Governing Independent Public Schools

Sunday, January 11th, 2009

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://  

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,

Strassman, E. R., Vogt, K. R., and Wary, C. S., (1991). The Public Employment Relations Law, Trenton, New Jersey: New Jersey School Boards Association.    



New Jersey’s Under-funded Education Mandates Hurt Public Education

Wednesday, December 31st, 2008

Under-funded state special education mandates are perhaps the primary reason why the cost of public school education continues to increase at a rate higher than the rate of inflation, causing property taxes to rise disproportionately to incomes in New Jersey.  According to the Garden State Coalition of Schools (GSCS, 2008), in New Jersey “mandates drive 70% of district expenses” and of these mandates, those for special education represent the fastest growing financial challenge confronting school districts.  Furthermore, these under-funded state mandates have heightened the pressure on school districts to fund operating budgets by reducing programs and services for regular education in order to fund mandate-protected programs and services, primarily special education.


School districts are required by state and federal laws to provide the special education programs and services included in a student’s Individual Education Plan (IEP); therefore, special education budgets cannot be cut and the under-funded portion of special education’s costs must be made up from other budgetary sources.  To offset the increased costs of under-funded special education mandates, school districts are increasingly forced to significantly reduce programs for regular education students because property tax increases have been limited largely through other state legislation.  Under-funded state special education mandates not only have sharply increased the competition between regular and special education programs for funding within a school’s budget but also have created sharp divisions within a school’s community because they pit the parents of special and regular education students against each other in the fight for funding.


In 2005, New Jersey state aid covered less than one-third of state mandated special education programs and services while the federal Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) is funded at approximately five percent of its cost to school districts nationwide.  Since January 2008, special education financial aid has been further and significantly reduced for most districts statewide based on the new state funding formula that reduces a school district’s special education aid calculation to the extent that its classification rate is above the state average.  In addition, wealthy districts have been losing entitlement aid for at-risk children, particularly special education as these and other categorical financial aid funds are now subjected to the formula’s wealth-equalizing local share calculation. 


All of this comes at a time when the costs for special education are skyrocketing.  Increased costs for mandated preschool programs including intensive services for autistic students and lower special education student to teacher ratios are a major part of the problem.  But more importantly there are also increasing numbers of costly out-of-district placements as well as parental lawsuits against public school districts for the purpose of obtaining private school placements for their children at the public’s expense.  


New Jersey has the highest proportion of special education students in out-of-district placements as well as the fourth highest classification rate for special education eligibility in the country.  Many of New Jersey’s school districts find that out-of-district placements can consume as much as 50% of the special education budget despite covering approximately ten percent of special education enrollment.  The students placed in out-of-district schools tend to be the most expensive because they are usually the ones most in need of special education programs and services.  Depending on the student’s disability, the annual cost of sending a student to an out-of-district private school can range from roughly $70,000 to over $250,000 especially for the most educationally and physically challenged students.  


The legal costs arising from parental special education-based law suits are another major expense for schools.  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.  Moreover, litigation for special education proceedings often takes longer than civil law suits – increasing both 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 State of New Jersey requires special education programs for children with educational disabilities ages three to five, particularly autistic children.  While the only difference for preschool aged children is the state requirement to have a speech pathologist on the child study team, the same IEP, evaluation, eligibility, due process and “least restrictive environment” requirements apply for all special education students regardless of age.  These mandated pre-school programs put an additional expense burden on local school districts as long as the mandates continue to come without the requisite funding from the state. 


The special education students to teacher ratios are set by the State of New Jersey and they are, necessarily, lower than the student to teacher ratios for regular students.  These staffing ratios are based primarily on the student’s IEP, classification, and intensity of services required.  The student to teacher ratio for a class for children with the lowest level of disabilities having one teacher has a maximum of eight while the maximum is twelve for a class with one teacher and one aid.  Although ratios usually range from four to seven depending on the severity of the student’s disability, class sizes exceeding six students require two aids in addition to the teacher.  However, classes for children with autism and other profound cognitive disabilities are limited to a ratio of three to one.  While providing a good education for students with special needs, without the requisite state funding for these mandated levels, the higher costs of such low student to teacher ratios are often offset by higher student to teacher ratios for regular education.  Because smaller class sizes have been shown to improve learning for all students, the under-funded state mandates for special education can have a deleterious effect on regular student education.


When the State of New Jersey requires its public schools to pay for an ever increasing proportion of special education costs through its under-funded mandates, the state is not only forcing property taxes to grow faster than the rate of inflation but also pressuring districts to find the missing funds by reducing the regular education budget.  Such forced cuts to the regular education budget cause school districts to reduce the number of regular education teachers which results in much larger class sizes for regular education students.  Because larger class sizes have been shown to lead to lower test scores which make it more difficult for students and schools to achieve adequate yearly progress (AYP) as required by the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act.  As a result, school districts are much more likely to be subjected to many of the NCLB’s more stringent financial penalties.  This will further reduce the financial resources available to support quality education. 


Unless the people of New Jersey wish to have not only higher property taxes but also a downward spiral in the quality of their public education, then the State of New Jersey should pay the costs of its mandated school programs and services particularly special education.  If all of New Jersey’s special education mandates were fully funded the quality of the education of all of New Jersey’s public school students, both regular and special, would be the greatest beneficiary. 




Garden State Coalition of Schools (2008). Garden State Coalition of Schools Legislative FYI 5-16-08  May 16, 2008.