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Heated Debate Marks New Jersey School-Finance Hearing

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Trenton, N.J.--Wide disparities in spending among New Jersey school systems have "scarred" children in poor districts both emotionally and educationally, the lawyer for a group of students seeking to overturn the state's school-finance system told the state supreme court here last week.

But, responded a lawyer for the state, the plaintiffs have failed to show a connection between higher spending and better schools, and are seeking a finance system "that guarantees nothing more than increased expenditures with no promise for educational improvement."

Those points--put forward by Marilyn J. Morheuser, director of the Education Law Center, and Deputy Attorney General Alfred E. Ramey, respectively--reflected the key lines of debate as the court heard oral arguments in Abbott v. Burke, the state's landmark school-finance lawsuit.

The court's decision in the case, which is not expected to be handed down for at least three months, will mark the climactic chapter in a legal battle that began back in 1981, when the suit was filed on behalf of 20 children attending schools in Camden, East Orange, Irvington, and Jersey City.

The plaintiffs contend that the finance system does not provide a "thorough and efficient education," as required by the state constitution, because it discriminates against children in poorer districts.

Moreover, they argue, the system violates both a state law against discrimination and the equal-protection clause of the state constitution.

A state administrative-law judge last year ruled in favor of the plaintiffs. State education officials formally rejected that finding this spring, however, after which the supreme court agreed to hear the case on an expedited basis. (See Education Week, Sept. 7, 1988.)

Oral arguments in the case,8scheduled to last two hours, swelled to more than twice that as the justices peppered both lawyers with sharp questions.

Some 75 spectators--including several dozen sometimes boisterous supporters of the urban schoolchildren--spilled over into an special room equipped with television monitors showing the proceedings.

Joining Ms. Morheuser, who heads a Newark-based public-interest law firm, in arguing against the state's current finance system were Stephen M. Eisdorfer of the state public-advocate's office and Melville D. Miller of the Legal Services Corporation of New Jersey.

The exchanges in the courtroom were often brusque. At one point, Chief Justice Robert N. Wilentz pressed Mr. Ramey on his contention that the record for the case showed "no correlation" between the amount of money spent in a district and the academic performance of its students.

To improve performance in a given district, "It always takes more money, doesn't it?" Judge Wilentz asked. "Does it ever take less money?"

Mr. Ramey replied in the negative. But he added that while Commissioner of Education Saul A. Cooperman often decides that an individual district needs more money, he "draws the line at the general assumption that more money is needed across the board to improve educational achievement."

Judge Wilentz pressed the point further, suggesting that districts needed some minimum amount of money for their students to achieve.

Mr. Ramey agreed. "Certainly, you have to have some money to have a school building, for instance," he said.

"With that concession," the chief justice replied, "we shall recess until 2 P.M."

Ms. Morheuser was also part of some pointed exchanges concerning the case's complex procedural history.

The factual record for the case is largely based on a nine-month trial before the administrative-law judge. The supreme court in 1985 had ordered that the case be considered at that level.

Under state law, however, Judge Stephen L. Lefelt's finding that the current system was unconstitutional was subject to review by the state commissioner and the state board. Both rejected his ruling.

In arguing last week that the court should accept Judge Lefelt's ruling, Ms. Morheuser attempted to discredit Mr. Cooperman's stand.

The commissioner's response to Judge Lefelt contained "many faulty legal conclusions," she argued, and was tainted by the state's "interest in defending standards it has put in place."

"Are you saying that some of the findings of the commissioner are arbitrary and capricious?" asked Justice Alan B. Handler.

"Absolutely," answered Ms. Morheuser. "Absolutely, I am saying that."

Judge Wilentz asked Ms. Morheuser whether equalizing spending among districts in the state would create uniform mediocrity.

"What you're urging," he said, "is a system of education that is largely homogenized."

"We're not arguing for homogen-ization," responded Ms. Morheuser. The goal was not to force wealthier schools to "level down," she said, but to help poorer schools "level up."

"What each district should be able to do is meet the needs of its children," she said.

If the court rules for the plaintiffs, Ms. Morheuser said outside the courtroom, she would ask it to monitor the development of a new system. That might involve setting up hearings to review new school-finance proposals, she said, or appointing a lower-court judge to oversee the process.

She offered no specific alternate plan, however, arguing only that the state has the resources to fund education adequately in all districts.

"What we need, we can find," she said. "We have a lot of very wealthy people in this state."

But Mr. Ramey said that even if the court strikes down the current system, it would be unlikely to be involved in developing a new one. The court "may be reluctant to address the question of remedy," he said in an interview.

Continued on Page 16

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