New Jersey Lawyer, October 2001
The New Jersey Supreme Court on Thursday upheld a new school financing formula that replaced a controversial one that had favored poor urban districts.
The new formula was adopted by the state early last year in response to widespread complaints that the previous version, a two-tiered financing system, had concentrated education spending in 31 so-called Abbott districts, while shortchanging the state’s 584 other districts in suburban and rural areas.
The new formula apportions money to all districts based on the characteristics of their students, like family income, language ability and special academic needs.
In a 136-page ruling, Justice Jaynee LaVecchia wrote that the new formula was constitutional and that the state no longer had to provide supplemental money to the Abbott districts, which got their name from a long-running lawsuit about inequalities in school financing, Abbott v. Burke. But she also wrote that the formula must continue to be fully financed, and that it needed to be reviewed after three years.
“It represents a thoughtful, progressive attempt to assist at-risk children throughout the state of New Jersey, and not only those who by happenstance reside in Abbott districts,” Justice LaVecchia wrote, describing the formula as “the product of years of work by talented educators, reviewed and reviewed again.”
Gov. Jon S. Corzine said in a statement on Thursday that “the court has allowed us to focus in a unified and predictable way on meeting our obligation to all of our children, while in no way prejudicing those who have benefited from the Abbott rulings in the past.”
But in some Abbott districts, educators and parents were sharply critical, expressing disappointment over what they saw as a major setback in their efforts to turn around troubled schools.
“New Jersey used to be in the leadership of the move toward educational fairness,” said Tina Cintron, president of the Statewide Education Organizing Committee, which represents families in Newark, Paterson, Jersey City and Asbury Park. “Now we are seeing a drastic turnaround for the worse.”
Irene Sterling, president of the Paterson Education Fund, a group of parents and community members who support the schools, said the district would have to cut back on programs and reduce staff to keep up with rising operating costs. “The children lost,” she said. “We were flat-funded last year, and we will be flat-funded for the next two years. It’s going to be a very constrained environment.”
David G. Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, which sued the state over the financing formula, said that his group planned to step up its efforts to track the impact of the formula on school districts. He added that the proposed state budget for next year did not pay for all the increases called for by the formula, which included an expansion of preschool programs.
“We are deeply concerned that the new formula will quickly return New Jersey to the unequal school system of the past and undo a decade of measurable progress for our poorest students,” he said.
Education Commissioner Lucille E. Davy said that the state was committed to financing the formula and helping all districts including the Abbotts use their resources most efficiently.
Jack Raslowsky II, superintendent of the 2,600-student Hoboken district, said that concentrating money and resources in the state’s poorest districts brought about significant academic improvements, and that the new formula may dilute those efforts.
Hoboken, as an Abbott district, received an additional $6 million a year to pay for preschool for 500 3- and 4-year-olds, two-thirds of whom qualified for free or reduced lunch. In coming years, Mr. Raslowsky said, the district will have to shoulder more of the cost, or cut back the program.
“I think the ultimate goal is to level the playing field with respect to state funding for education so everyone gets a fair share,” he said. “But the Abbott needs are not changing, and we’re adding new needs to the pot, and the pot is not necessarily growing.”
In Union City, an Abbott district that has nearly 12,000 students, the district initially received a $22 million increase in state aid for the 2008-09 school year under the new formula, or twice as much of an increase as the year before. The money was used to buy new school buses, upgrade technology and cover expenses for a new high school opening in September.
But next year, the district will receive only a $7 million increase in state aid. Anthony Dragona, the district’s business administrator, said that the amount of state money fluctuated more under the new formula, while under the Abbott system, it grew steadily. “So doing our budget this year, we had to sharpen our pencil,” he said.
Picture: NJ Supreme Court,