School funding, property taxes aren’t the winning issues N.J. Republicans think they are

Fighting to keep your local school fully funded (whatever that means) sounds like good politics, right? Republicans running in 2023 clearly think so, and my Save Jersey inbox is clogged with angry protestations over a legislative Democrat measure to restore some of the school funding cuts embedded in Governor Phil Murphy’s FY 2024 budget proposal. The Trenton GOP is demanding full restoration of full funding.

But what is full funding? What is the right dollar amount?

And is all of this really winning politics? Or playing directly into Democrats’ hands? I have my suspicions which long-time readers will easily be able to guess, Save Jerseyans.

For starters, how many New Jersey voters even know what they pay in property taxes? New Jersey’s schools are powered by our highest-in-the-nation property tax assessments, but 37% of New Jersey adults don’t own homes and approximately two-thirds of homeowners have mortgages. That means a strong majority of New Jersey either (1) don’t pay property taxes at all, at least not directly, or (2) pay them as part of a combined tax/insurance/mortgage/PMI monthly debit. I’d be willing to wager money that most mortgage payors consequently have NO IDEA what their property tax burden actually looks like. It’s just another escrow line-item on their monthly statement which they pay towards but likely never read.

There’s also the reality of our times which yours truly has been writing about since before the Midterm 2018 GOP bloodbath: a large percentage of Garden State suburbanites don’t care about high taxes very much. Even in these hyper-inflationary times, they’re “wealthy” enough to vote their values over their pocketbooks and, as anyone can see, those values are increasingly creeping further and further towards the leftward fringe. Maybe the next war or depression will fundamentally change the current calculus, but Republicans get their asses kicked cycle in, cycle out running primarily on taxes because their subject audience is willing to pay the price for woke.

On the subject of woke, New Jerseyans also generally believe their schools are worth the money (whatever that dollar amount is). Every new school year brings a new cascade of suspect studies touting New Jersey’s schools as the best in the nation. Is that really true? It depends, of course, how you measure quality. Any poll or survey suffers from that vulnerability. New Jersey is home to some of the wealthiest suburbs in the world which necessarily translates to a population where a higher percentage of families are intact and achievement is culturally engrained; meanwhile, we also host some of the nation’s most troubled compact urban centers where tens of thousands of dollars are invested annually per child with precious little to show for it. Still, the perception persists largely because the NJEA and its allies in the Media support the narrative, and the swing voters who decide major contests don’t live in Camden, Newark, or another former “Abbott District.”

All of that, and Republicans politicians also reinforce the narrative.

I hope you can see the obvious problem! Republican objections to school funding decisions are tantamount to lazy accounting actions which are successful only at making your average voter’s eyes glaze over…. assuming they gain the voters’ attention in the first place. I said it at the beginning of the post: how much is the right amount? It’s obviously  subjective and hard for your average voter to parse out. When Republican candidates play this game notwithstanding the obvious absurdity of the premise, they effectively validate the insidious Democrat lie that QUANTITY EQUAL QUALITY in the classroom. Nothing could be further than the truth; if more money translated to a better education, then the $20,000 to $30,000+ we pay for K-12 students in some poorer districts should be producing Rhodes Scholars. It’s not because money is not the problem. Culture, accountability, union corruption, and a glaring lack of competition (the correction of which would directly address if not solve the prior three issues) constitute the problem.

A successful New Jersey GOP that can play in all 21 counties is one that’s willing and able to slaughter sacred cows.

An NJGOP establishment that is content to run the same playbook without any empirical basis for expecting different results is a permanent minority destined to rent swing districts in decent cycles only to hand them right back to the bad guys in short order.

Matt Rooney
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MATT ROONEY is's founder and editor-in-chief, a practicing New Jersey attorney, and the host of 'The Matt Rooney Show' on 1210 WPHT every Sunday evening from 7-10PM EST.