Vocal lawmaker's crusade against N.J.'s school-funding formula

Mike Doherty has foes fuming.
Mike Doherty has foes fuming.
Posted: July 15, 2013

TRENTON - Mike Doherty is a firebrand conservative who is on a mission to reform the state's school tax structure.

The Republican state senator from rural Warren County in northwest New Jersey doesn't mind at all being politically incorrect.

Nor trading in apocalyptic language.

His primary target, arguably his only target, is the state formula that distributes education aid overwhelmingly to 31 mostly urban school districts. The imbalance favoring these districts over the rest of the state has placed suburban and rural towns in a financial straitjacket, he says. Businesses are fleeing, and many residents are having trouble making ends meet, he says.

"The suburbs are like a hot-air balloon about to crash into high-tension wires," he said during an interview in his office in Washington Borough, a rural town about 60 miles directly west of New York City. "Everything in New Jersey is about bailing out the urban areas. We are punishing the suburbs. The suburbs are doing a pretty good job dealing with diminishing [economic activity], but that is not going to last for long. There is a tremendous amount of stress in our suburban and rural towns."

Doherty's ideas get a hostile, even furious, reaction in some quarters. David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center in Newark, which brought the lawsuit that resulted in the state's current school-funding plan, accused Doherty of seeking to write off hundreds of thousands of minority students in urban areas without the resources to provide a decent education.

"Doherty does not want to recognize that to have a high-powered education system that gives everyone the opportunity to meet state educational standards, you have to provide additional resources," Sciarra said. "My point is that the senator is going back to an age-old tactic: Pit one group against another, white against black, poor kids against affluent kids. What he is saying is that kids in the cities who live in areas of concentrated poverty, kids with special needs, shouldn't get the resources they need."

The state Supreme Court, in the Abbott v. Burke school-funding case, issued a series of rulings beginning in 1985 that eventually required the state to substantially boost aid for impoverished schools. That additional aid initially was limited to 31 so-called Abbott districts in the state's largest cities, including Camden and Newark, but also a handful of struggling rural areas, including Salem and Vineland. The Legislature adopted a school-funding formula in 2008 that continued aid for the original Abbott districts, but also boosted funding for other towns with growing numbers of poor people, such as Pennsauken.

Those rulings have long been controversial among conservatives, and Gov. Christie has repeatedly attacked the court for forcing the state to pay more for urban education.

Doherty, 50, a patent lawyer who graduated from West Point and served as an Army artillery officer with the rank of captain, is proposing a constitutional amendment that would divide state income-tax revenue evenly among school districts. With Democrats in control of both houses of the Legislature, his proposal has virtually no chance of passing. But Doherty continues to press his case on the belief that his message eventually will get through.

Under his plan, each district would receive $8,777 per student.

Doherty has traveled the state making his pitch to local officials.

On a visit to Voorhees Township, he pointed out that the school system there receives $2,656 in state aid per student while Asbury Park, targeted for special assistance under the Abbott ruling, receives $25,290 per student.

In Cherry Hill, state aid per student this year is $1,154 per student, while in nearby Gloucester City, another of the 31 specially designated Abbott districts, state aid is $19,810 per student.

Pretty good deal, huh? Doherty asks.

To arguments that many of the state's biggest cities have little in the way of taxable property and, thus, can't afford to fund their schools, Doherty says that there has to be a limit to what the state spends and that his constituents have been crushed under the weight of property taxes that fund their schools.

Were his proposal adopted, Doherty maintains, Gloucester City and the other Abbott districts still would be getting far more in aid than their residents pay out in income taxes, which are used to support school aid as well as payments to counties and municipalities.

Jersey City has seen substantial commercial development, and even portions of Newark now are thriving. If that is so, Doherty argues, isn't it time for the cities to pick up more of the costs for educating their students, or doing more with the money they get from the state?

"People have this vague sense," Doherty said, "that kids in the cities are getting $2 [in school aid] for every $1 that goes to the suburbs, when it actually is more like $25."

To which Sciarra of the Education Law Center responds: "Yes, these districts do get more funding, and they are entitled to more funding. That is the principle of equity that Doherty does not want to recognize."

Contact Chris Mondics at 609-989-9016 or cmondics@phillynews.com.

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