Good schools, low taxes and no activist judges! (?)

Posted on June 8, 2010

….Why Massachusetts is so much cooler than New Jersey… REALLY? (nothing against Mass. Go Celtics!)

Perplexing claims and contradictory information seem to be flooding the New Jersey media of late. Here’s my summary and critique of two of those claims:

  • The claim that the problem with New Jersey schools is that the New Jersey Supreme Court for decades meddled where they didn’t belong, squeezing taxpayers to flood poor urban districts with billions of dollars, none of which ever produced any gains in school quality. It’s still a wretched system! Wretched, I say!
  • The claim that if New Jersey were to implement a property tax cap like Massachusetts, New Jersey schools which currently achieve nearly the same as Massachusetts could do a lot better, and for much less money. That is, the property tax cap implemented by Massachusetts in 1980 is responsible for the slightly higher “quality” and marginally lower spending of Massachusetts schools. (actually, the ever-morphing claim is that Mass blows us away on test scores and spends 26% less per pupil. I debunk those claims in the link above).

Of course, the first contradiction here lies in the acknowledgment that New Jersey schools sit right near the top of the pack along with Massachusetts (and both rank very high in international comparisons as well).

The second contradiction however is far more ironic. In fact, extensive analysis and review of empirical research presented in this forthcoming study shows that New Jersey and Massachusetts are in fact among the national success stories of implementing effective school finance reforms in response to judicial intervention. Yes – increased funding in response to judicial intervention!

Massachusetts 1990s successes in improving educational outcomes and achieving greater equity in educational outcomes across public school districts were a function of sweeping finance and accountability reforms, implemented in response to a court order. In fact, one can argue that a major reason that the Massachusetts courts needed to intervene to improve equity and adequacy of education funding was the property tax limits.

Here are a few excerpts from the forthcoming study. Regarding other recent studies and reports from Think Tanks, Dr. Welner and I conclude:

We conclude that there is arbitrariness in how research in this area appears to have shaped the perceptions and discourse of policymakers and the public. Methodological complexities and design problems plague finance impact studies. Advocacy research that has received considerable attention in the press and elsewhere has taken shortcuts toward desired conclusions, and this is troubling.

Among the studies Dr. Welner and I review in the forthcoming study are a handful on the specific effects of New Jersey and Massachusetts reforms:

For Massachusetts, two independent sets of authors have found positive reform effects. Most recently, Downes, Zabel and Ansel (2009) found:

  • The achievement gap notwithstanding, this research provides new evidence that the state’s investment has had a clear and significant impact. Specifically, some of the research findings show how education reform has been successful in raising the achievement of students in the previously low-spending districts. Quite simply, this comprehensive analysis documents that without Ed Reform the achievement gap would be larger than it is today. (p. 5)

Previously, Guryan (2003) concluded:

  • Using state aid formulas as instruments, I find that increases in per-pupil spending led to significant increases in math, reading, science, and social studies test scores for 4th- and 8th-grade students. The magnitudes imply a $1,000 increase in per-pupil spending leads to about a third to a half of a standard-deviation increase in average test scores. It is noted that the state aid driving the estimates is targeted to under-funded school districts, which may have atypical returns to additional expenditures. (p. 1)

Turning to New Jersey, two recent studies find positive effects of that state’s finance reforms. Alexandra Resch (2008), in research published as a dissertation for the economics department at the University of Michigan, found evidence suggesting that New Jersey Abbott districts “directed the added resources largely to instructional personnel” (p. 1) such as additional teachers and support staff. She also concluded that this increase in funding and spending improved the achievement of students in the affected school districts. Looking at the statewide 11th grade assessment (“the only test that spans the policy change”), she found “that the policy improves test scores for minority students in the affected districts by one-fifth to one-quarter of a standard deviation” (p. 1).

The second recent study was originally presented at a 2007 conference at Columbia University, and a revised, peer-reviewed version was recently published by the Campaign for Educational Equity at Teachers College, Columbia University (Goertz and Weiss, 2009). This paper offers descriptive evidence that reveals some positive test results of recent New Jersey school finance reforms:

  • State Assessments: In 1999 the gap between the Abbott districts and all other districts in the state was over 30 points. By 2007 the gap was down to 19 points, a reduction of 11 points or 0.39 standard deviation units. The gap between the Abbott districts and the high-wealth districts fell from 35 to 22 points. Meanwhile performance in the low-, middle-, and high-wealth districts essentially remained parallel during this eight-year period (Figure 3, p. 23).
  • NAEP: The NAEP results confirm the changes we saw using state assessment data. NAEP scores in fourth-grade reading and mathematics in central cities rose 21 and 22 points, respectively between the mid-1990s and 2007, a rate that was faster than the urban fringe in both subjects and the state as a whole in reading (p. 26).

On balance, Dr. Welner and I find that high quality empirical studies taken collectively support the conclusion that sustained, well designed school finance reforms including those which follow state judicial orders, generally lead to improvements to either or both the level of student outcomes and equity in the distribution of student outcomes. Further, New Jersey and Massachusetts are both examples of these successes.

No, it wasn’t the Massachusetts tax limits that created successful schools. And the only reason those tax limits did not undermine entirely the 1990s successes is that a) the state court was willing and able to intervene and b) the state was able to provide the additional state support needed to implement the reforms. This, however, left Mass schools much more vulnerable to economic downturns and state aid cuts in more recent years (2001-02 downturn and current).

Just trying to get the story straight!

Studies cited above:

Downes, T. A., Zabel, J., and Ansel, D. (2009). Incomplete Grade: Massachusetts Education Reform at 15. Boston, MA. MassINC.

Guryan, J. (2003). Does Money Matter? Estimates from Education Finance Reform in Massachusetts. Working Paper No. 8269. Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research.

Goertz, M., and Weiss, M. (2009). Assessing Success in School Finance Litigation: The Case of New Jersey. New York City: The Campaign for Educational Equity, Teachers College, Columbia University.

Resch, A. M. (2008). Three Essays on Resources in Education (dissertation). Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, Department of Economics. Retrieved October 28, 2009, from

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