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Suit Claims N.J. Reform Law Will Not Fund Schools Equitably

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The lawyer whose court chal lenge led to the overturning of New Jersey's education-funding system in 1990 has filed suit against the subsequent finance- reform measure approved by the legislature last summer and amended last March. $

Marilyn Morheuser of the Education Law Center in Newark urged the state supreme court last week to strike down the Quality Education Act, which allocated some $750 million in additional aid to the state's public schools.

Ms. Morheuser asked the court to order the legislature to create a new finance plan by Dec. 31. If a new system is not enacted by that time, the suit argues, the court should take direct action to rem edy what Ms. Morheuser sees as a still-widening gap between rich and poor districts.

Ms. Morheuser and other fi nance-equity advocates have ar gued that the original version of the qea fell short of remedying the system ruled unconstitutional by the court in Abbott v. Burke.

But last week's suit lambastes even more strongly the amend ments adopted by the legislature in March, which siphoned off
about $350 million in school aid for property-tax relief.

Two-thirds of the original $1.1 billion allocated by the qea was slated for the state's 30 poorest, or "special needs," districts, which

  • 4the court singled out for help.

Under the revised law, however, "the legislature abandoned any - pretense of equalizing the special- needs districts' spending for regu lar education with average spend ing in the [most affluent] districts," the suit contends.

The disparity supposedly remeH died by the legislation has actual ly widened in 27 of the 30 dis tricts, the suit indicates, and "has created massive statewide dis7 equalization, even in the distribu tion of tax relief."$

According to the suit, only two school districts, Millville and PemH berton, had average per-pupil spending levels that were more than $3,000 below those of the state's wealthiest districts in the 1989-90 school year. By 1991-92, when the qea funds are slated to be distributed, those two will be joined by the Bridgeton, Camden, Elizabeth, Gloucester City, Harri0 son, Perth Amboy, and Vineland districts, the suit predicts.

Funding disparities will have increased by more than $1,000 per pupil in eight other special-0 needs districts, according to the $
suit.

In a statement, Commissioner of Education John Ellis said he had not reviewed the suit, but called the qea "a courageous re0 sponse to the pressing need for ed0 ucational excellence and equity." He said he would "welcome any clarification the state supreme

court may provide."

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