Every year, New Jerseyans get to vote directly on the spending plan of their local schools. However, voters are purposefully confused, overpromised and outright misled before they're allowed to vote, claims the Common Sense Institute of New Jersey (CSI-NJ).
"School districts spend more per pupil than they are reporting to the public—a lot more," said CSI-NJ President Jerry Cantrell.
"In 105 districts the difference was at least $3,000 per student, and audit data show that at least 14 districts spend more than $20,000 per student. The biggest spenders are not just in our biggest cities, either. "
How does this happen? Districts are required to publish a User-Friendly Budget prior to every school budget vote. However, the district only reports on "per-pupil expenditure", which is the amount a district claims it will spend to educate the "average" student. Therefore, the User-Friendly Budget does not include all spending items, only those spent by virtually every district.
Governor Christie and the Department of Education amended this system, trying to better the situation earlier this year with the introduction of the Taxpayers' Guide to Educational Spending, which includes more spending categories.
The disparity between the reports is an average of $3,500 more per student according to the Taxpayers' Guide than the User-Friendly Budget.
And now a new report by the Common Sense Institute of New Jersey intends to highlight that even this improved measure is not all-encompassing and that large differences exist between districts of different size, socioeconomic status and location. The Institute intends that this should alert taxpayers as to the widespread nature of the problem.
In 2010, just 27 percent of the school districts studied actually identified per-pupil cost reduction, while 82 percent told the public they expect to reduce per-pupil costs this coming year. Contracts protecting teachers' jobs and declining enrollment in districts makes this highly unlikely, but taxpayers will have long forgotten the promise by the time the actual numbers come in next year, says the institute.
"Declining enrollments and contractual obligations make it very unlikely 82% of districts will spend less per student this year than they did last year, but the law allows this type of forecasting to proceed," said CSI-NJ Economics Fellow Mark "Jay" Williams, the report's author.
"Taxpayers should be deeply troubled and question their own school districts by reviewing local audits to see the spending for themselves."