Case Study: Has Abbott Worked?
While it is difficult to compare academic achievement across time periods, evidence indicates that Abbott money has had little effect on improving student performance. The current method for assessing student performance is the High School Proficiency Assessment, instituted in 2003. Students have not been tested consistently before this time, making it difficult to measure the impact of Abbott on student performance.[a]
By current measures, Abbott districts still lag behind their peers in test scores and graduation rates. In the 2004–2005 school year, two decades after Abbott I, Newark, with a student population of 41,710, was one of the highest-funded districts in the state, spending $21,978 per pupil, with a student-teacher ratio of twelve-to-one.[b] Test scores are rising in absolute terms, and relative to the rest of the state. However, Newark test scores are still significantly below state averages. About 60 percent of fourth graders passed the state’s Language Arts Literacy Exam, compared to a state average of 80 percent. Newark’s graduation rate was 92 percent in 2007; yet, only 45 percent of the city’s eleventh-graders passed the High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA).
Complicating matters, the state offers two exit exam options. For students who fail the HSPA three times, there is the Special Review Assessment (SRA). Described as a “backdoor route to graduation,”[c] objections have been raised to the SRA by the legislature and Department of Education, with the State Board of Education offering a resolution to phase it out, suggesting, “districts that disproportionately rely on the SRA… develop a plan to reduce the number of students using it and to report annually their progress in reducing this level of dependence.”[d]
In 2008, as a compromise, the Board decided the Core Curriculum Standards would be revised, and students taking either the HSPA or the SRA must demonstrate they grasped content standards in order to pass. State reliance on SRA examinations has dropped since 2005, but Abbott districts have trended in the opposite direction, with Newark an important exception.[e]
The court placed a clear emphasis on increased funding as the answer to improving student performance. Their decisions reflected the belief among the educational establishment in the 1970s that education is an “output,” which can be improved by increasing the “input.” But that has not been the case.
The lackluster performance of these schools is also related to the fractured relationship between beneficiaries and providers. Abbott districts receive the majority of their funding from state aid rather than local tax revenues. The incentive to make optimal use of this funding and to monitor school performance is minimal. In addition, taxpayers in districts receiving state aid may not be benefiting from lower property taxes, because officials in local government prefer to work the increased revenue into their budgets, rather than returning it to taxpayers via a municipal tax cut.[f]
[a] Williamson M. Evers and Paul Clopton, “High-Spending, Low-Performing School Districts,” in Courting Failure: How School Finance Lawsuits Exploit Judges Good Intentions and Harm Our Children, ed. Eric Hanushek (Stanford: Hoover Press, 2006), 135.
[b] Ibid., 136.
[e] http://www.nj.gov/education/assessment/hs/sra/update/additional.pdf. In 2007, four of Newark’s high schools relied less on the SRA than they did in 2005.
[f] This is known as the “flypaper effect.” When state aid is used to reduce local taxes, the aid is generally returned to tax payers at a ratio lower than dollar for dollar. Upon receiving state aid for education, local officials essentially have three choices: they can use the additional revenue to lower property tax rates; they can spend the money on more education; or they can direct the money to another use of municipal money. Incentives may be such that either of the latter options appears more attractive to policy makers than lowering local citizens’ property taxes. See Timothy Goodspeed, “The Relationship between State Income Taxes and Local Property Taxes, “National Tax Journal 51, no. 2; Daphne A. Kenyon, “The Property Tax – School Funding Dilemma,” Lincoln Institute of Land Policy (2007).