NJPP report: Schools should prepare now for next year

Safely reopening schools amid the COVID-19 pandemic is going to be difficult … and expensive, according to a new report by New Jersey Policy Perspective.

“Safely reopening schools during a pandemic, whether in-person or virtually, will cost districts much more,” Bruce D. Baker, report author and Rutgers University professor, said. “The problem here is that we enter the current crisis having disinvested in the public school system for more than a decade. As a state, we are spending much less on public schools as a share of our economic capacity than we did more than a decade ago.”

The report, School Funding in New Jersey: Preparing for the 2020-21 School Year, focused on the past decade of disinvestment in New Jersey’s public education system and how that will affect future opening plans.

“Much smaller class sizes will be required to meet social-distancing guidelines and contain the spread of the coronavirus; this, in turn, will require hiring additional personnel, finding new classroom space and perhaps creating staggered schedules. … Since learning losses due to this spring’s school closures are likely to be most severe for students who live in poverty, schools in low-income neighborhoods will face especially daunting challenges come September,” the report said.

In short, if the state reopens safety, it will need to spend more than it did in the past, particularly in high-poverty schools and districts. However, the problem is highlighted by the fact that even before the pandemic hit, many schools didn’t have the proper resources to provide students an adequate education.

The percentage of New Jersey’s economy devoted to school funding has declined sharply since the 2009 recession, leaving fewer revenue opportunities available to the districts. In 2009, total state and local education funding as a percentage of personal income peaked at 4.25% and declined to 2.71% by 2017. The cuts in funding were not equal, the report said, as school districts with large student of color populations suffered the greatest cuts.

“Neither the pandemic nor the ensuring economic collapse should be used as an excuse to allow these districts to continue operating without the funding the state’s own law says they need,” the report said.

Last year, more than 100,000 students attended schools in districs where the spending gap was greater than $5,000 per pupil (average budget is $16,559 per student). The report found that in 2019, schools underfunded by more than $5,000 had a student body of 11.4% Black and 62.6% Latinx.

In reality, New Jersey should be receiving a school aid package from the federal government. However, it may take several months to see it. If no federal school aid arrives (which is realistic, the report said), the state must raise additional capital on its own: either increase the income tax on the wealthiest residents or suspend sending state aid to the most affluent districts.

“New Jersey cannot respond to the COVID-19 crisis the way it responded to the Great Recession,” Brandon McKoy, president of NJPP, said. “Cuts in education funding a decade ago have worsened inequalities among racial lines, which has harmed the welfare of our students, their communities, and the future prosperity of the broader economy. As a state, we can and should invest more resources in our public schools, we just need our state’s elected leaders to make this a priority.”

The report concluded that over the next few months, New Jersey lawmakers should raise revenue, targeted at the wealthiest, to help fund public education.