Hoover Daily Report

Abbott districts need better incentives

via Times of Trenton (N.J.)
Wednesday, April 19, 2006

On April 7, Gov. Jon S. Corzine said that budget constraints compelled him to propose freezing the level of spending in the state's 31 Abbott districts. In a parallel move, state attorney general Zulima V. Farber supported the freeze and said that there was no evidence that some of the districts' state-funded education programs were succeeding.

The Abbott districts are so-called because the New Jersey state Supreme Court has determined their levels of spending in a series of decisions in the case of Abbott v. Burke, a long-running school-finance lawsuit. The court ordered the state to give the low-income Abbott districts—which include Newark and Camden, but also smaller districts—sufficient aid to bring them up to the level of spending in the state's wealthiest districts. At present, 21 percent of the state's 1.3 million children go to school in Abbott districts, but those districts obtain more than half of state education aid.

Today, statewide current operations spending for K–12 education comes to about $12,000 per student per year on average. Spending in many Abbott districts exceeds $15,000 per student. In certain Abbott districts (such as Asbury Park and Camden), it is as high as $17,000 to $18,000 per student. In comparison to the Abbott districts, suburban districts spend less, namely about $10,000 to $11,000 per child. The national average is around $8,000.

Newark school board member Dana Rone pointed out that if we combine the school budgets for Newark and Camden, the total in 2004 was approximately $1 billion. If we disregard the students who graduate via the state's academically less rigorous alternative-test process, the cost per academically qualified high-school graduate in these two districts is nearly $1 million.

This dramatically illustrates the fact that despite massive additional funds, there has been little or no improvement across the Abbott districts. The group Excellent Education for Everyone (E3) points out that as the state has tripled spending on the Abbott districts, their performance has ``steadily declined,'' as measured by college attendance rates, standardized test scores, K-12 attendance rates and high school graduation rates.

Likewise, in 1999, Douglas Coate and James VanderHoff, economics professors at Rutgers University, analyzed the state's school-finance system. According to their findings, increased spending per student had no positive effect on achievement in the state. Furthermore, when they looked specifically at the Abbott districts, they once again found no positive effect.

Most of Newark's freshman high-school students, for example, cannot read at grade level. In 2005, Newark board member Rone provided specific numbers: ``Of Barringer's 459 incoming freshmen, 324 of them read at or below a sixth- grade level. At Shabazz, 303 of 385 freshmen read at or below a sixth-grade level. And at Weequahic High, once considered one of the nation's finest high schools, 253 of 346 incoming freshmen read at or below a sixth-grade level. In effect, many of our middle schools are, annually, generating only nine students who can read on grade level.''

What has gone wrong? Why has all that money had little or no positive effect? The explanation is the power of the educational establishment and the persistence of educational fads. The solution is increased adult accountability for student academic results and better incentives to improve school productivity.

Part of the story of power is a story of corruption. In Camden and Newark, in particular, investigators and journalists over the years have discovered new cars, fancy meals, trips to tropical places, ghost students, ghost teachers, contractor kickbacks and selling of jobs. While bureaucratic red tape forces employees to bend rules and find a friend in high places in order to get legitimate tasks done, corrupt individuals take advantage of the habitual use of back channels and disregard of rules. The state needs to cut red tape and hold local officials and school principals responsible for results. Then local officials and principals will have an incentive to clean up corruption.

Despite three decades of high spending in the Abbott districts, the state has had a workable testing and accountability system only in the last few years. Despite the availability of increasing research-based knowledge on effective teaching practices and the components of a solid curriculum, the state has too often adhered to fads and fashions. The state has paid more attention to construction of buildings than to having tests that measure student achievement and the effectiveness of academic improvement programs. Despite the known importance of high-quality teachers, the educational establishment has blocked productivity-oriented reforms, such as pay for performance.

What is needed in the Abbott districts is not more money, but better incentives for school districts to spend money effectively. The failures of the Abbott districts are apparent to many, but there has been no political will to do what needs to be done. The state should at a minimum do what Gov. Corzine suggests and freeze funding increases to force school districts to put in place better incentives to be more productive in terms of student academic achievement.

NOTE: Bill Evers is a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and a member of its Koret task force on K–12 education. Paul Clopton is a research statistician for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in San Diego.

© The Times of Trenton (N.J.)
reprinted with permission