An express trains speeds past Ramsey station in this 2003 photo, ruffling Mayor Richard Muti's jacket, but not the mayor.

IN MY OPINION . . .

Governor Christie's Siren Song

August 27, 2016

Tags: Chris Christie, school funding, Fairness Formula

Governor Chris Christie's "Fairness Formula" for public education funding plays upon the frustrations and anxieties of property tax-weary suburbanites like the song of the sirens played upon the ears of ancient Greek sailors. If listened to, it will surely lead our ship of state onto rocky shoals as perilous as those that threatened Odysseus and his men in Homer's immortal tale.

Most of us plowed through The Odyssey in high school, when we were too young, perhaps, to appreciate its poetic beauty and universal truths. One part I do remember is the episode of the Sirens, who called out to mariners traversing a narrow sea passage and lured them, powerless to resist, to their demise on the jagged coast. Odysseus wanted to hear their song, but not at the expense of his ship and crew. He ordered his men to lash him securely to the mast and then to fill their ears with wax, so they could continue to sail their ship through the dangerous waters.

We don't know what enchanting lyrics those mystical nymphs of old sang to entice men to abandon all logic and good sense, but if one were to contemplate their modern-day equivalent, the song might go something like this:

Who cares if the Constitution says "thorough and efficient,"
It's not my leadership that has been deficient.

Time to let kids in Newark and Camden and Asbury Park,
Navigate their own way out of the dark.

Come to me now if you've had your fill,
and save thousands off your property tax bill.


Not exactly Grammy-winning caliber, I concede. But in effect, this is Chris Christie's siren song. He points to ineffectual spending in the 31 so-called Abbott school districts – those poorer urban districts the New Jersey Supreme Court ordered in 1990 to get extra state funding – but takes no responsibility for the poor performance in those districts. After six and a half years as governor, it is his administration and the state legislature that have failed to solve the problems inherent in those schools, while throwing money down the same bottomless pit.

The number most frequently trotted out by Christie and his surrogates is the $33,000 in state aid per student going to the Asbury Park school district, which has a graduation rate of just 66 percent. Most other Abbott districts get more than $20,000 per student, with similarly poor results, compared to the level of state aid going to much better performing suburban and rural districts: often less than $500 per student.

Something is clearly wrong, but to suddenly deprive most urban districts of two-thirds of their funding, without their ability to increase local property taxes to make up the difference, is equally wrong and will result in massive teacher and other staff layoffs, doubling of class sizes, and, irrefutably, even poorer performance. Making matters worse, the governor's proposal is political pandering in its most egregious form.

Yes, the Supreme Court ordered the state to increase funding to the Abbott districts, but that order was intended as a stop-gap measure, until the state legislature and governor came up with a more workable solution – something every governor since Christine Todd Whitman has failed to do.

"[F]unding alone will not achieve the constitutional mandate of an equal education in these poorer urban districts," the Court wrote. "[W]ithout educational reform, the money may accomplish nothing; and . . . in these districts, substantial, far-reaching change in education is absolutely essential to success. The proofs compellingly demonstrate that the traditional and prevailing educational programs in these poorer urban schools were not designed to meet and are not sufficiently addressing the pervasive array of problems that inhibit the education of poorer urban children. Unless a new approach is taken, these schools – even if adequately funded – will not provide a thorough and efficient education."

We don't need to stuff our ears with wax to resist Governor Christie's despicable call to our baser instincts. What we need is elected leaders who will work toward equitable solutions to these problems, without pitting one class of residents against another and without succumbing to the pressure of special interests. Unfortunately, leaders like that are rare.

Selected Works

Biography
A fast-paced, one-volume study of the most fascinating entertainer of the 20th century. The book isn't an academic tome, although it is extensively researched and footnoted; rather, it is designed to be a highly readable page-turner, for avid Sinatraphiles as well as more casual fans of his music and films. It examines the forces, both positive and negative, that made Sinatra Sinatra, with special attention given to the love-hate relationship he maintained toward Hoboken and New Jersey for most of his life. He once called the city of his birth a "sewer," but later observed, "When I was there, I just wanted to get out. It took me a long time to realize how much of it I took with me."
Essays
"Richard Muti's essays are smart and provocative, personal and political."
–Linda Fairstein, former prosecutor
and crime novelist
As this eBook is published, Gov. Chris Christie enjoys a 72 percent approval rating, the highest level attained by any governor in New Jersey history. Yet, the man still evokes passionate feelings from supporters and foes, alike.
"Much needed fresh air out of New Jersey, where the political atmosphere has long been foul."
Kirkus Discoveries
True Crime
"The Charmer is definitely one of 2012's 'must read' books."
True Crime Book Reviews
Novel
Filled with “brilliant plot twists, vivid descriptions, and great dialogue, with a smooth, easy-to-read writing style.”

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