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Just-Passed Finance Plan Faces Challenges in N.J.

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Just when New Jersey lawmakers may have thought they had put an end to controversies over the embattled Quality Education Act, a new set of efforts to change or overturn their handiwork has surfaced.

The legislature last month approved a bill diverting $350 million in education aid to property-tax relief, in hopes of quelling protests that have rocked the state since last summer when a $2.8-billion tax hike was enacted, in part to finance education reform. (See Education Week, March 13, 1991.)

Even before the ink was dry on the new law, though, further amendments were already being proposed--some by legislators from suburban areas supposedly appeased by the tax-relief measure, others by education advocates angered by the loss of school funding.

"I'm sure most of the legislature would have liked to lay this thing to rest," said Assemblyman Joseph A. Mecca. "But there were provisions of the qea that couldn't stand."

Moreover, Marilyn Morheuser, the lawyer whose decade-long battle on behalf of poor districts prompted the state supreme court to declare the state's school-finance system unconstitutional, has vowed to challenge the legislature's decision to divert school aid to tax relief.

Speaking to a group of urban superintendents last week, Ms. Morheuser said she would petition the supreme court by mid-June to rule on the revised qea

While she did not comment on it specifically, a bill passed by the Assembly March 21 could further anger Ms. Morheuser. The bill would grant three new reasons for a district to seek a waiver of spending caps aimed at enabling per-pupil expenditures in poorer districts to catch up to those in more affluent ones.

Last month's revision placed budget-growth caps of between 7.5 percent and 9 percent on all but the 30 poor, urban districts slated for massive aid increases under the qea Spending by those districts was allowed to grow by between 9.7 percent and 22 percent.

Under the proposed bill, districts could seek waivers of the cap if they anticipated a rise in enrollment; needed extra funds to cover state-mandated health and safety programs; or sought "to reach thorough and efficient education standards."

Waivers would need approval by the state commissioner of education.

Mr. Mecca, who proposed the bill, admitted that the "thorough and efficient education" waiver could be widely interpreted, and, depending on the stance taken by Commissioner of Education John Ellis, could defeat the equalization purpose of the caps.

But Mr. Mecca said he questions the basic idea of limiting district spending. "In my heart, if a [school] board wants to spend 10 grand a kid, God bless them," he said.

Other new bills, also passed by the Assembly last month, would commission a study on how to define parity in education spending, and require Mr. Ellis to submit a report each year on progress toward parity.

The definition of parity has been debated since the high court's ruling last year in Abbott v. Burke.

The qea currently uses total school-district funding to determine per-pupil expenditures. Ms. Morheuser contends that per-pupil expenditures should be determined only on the basis of regular education costs, not including special services, such as dropout prevention, that are provided primarily by urban districts.

Legislators concede that there are questions whether the amended version of the qea will meet the court's mandate. But they said they did not want to let speculation on the issue determine their legislative action.

"Do [the amendments] satisfy Abbott v. Burke? How many angels can sit on a pinhead?" asked Assemblyman Neil Cohen. "Obviously, whether they do or not will have to be a determination made by a court at a future date."

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