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N.J. Lawmakers Sidetrack Constitutional Amendments

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New Jersey lawmakers have sidetracked three controversial constitutional amendments that had the potential to dramatically affect the funding and structure of public schools in the state.

The legislature last month rejected outright a measure that would have given state voters the right to approve initiatives and referendums. Educators had warned that the proposal could lead to citizen-inspired tax cuts, thus undermining education funding.

Legislators also deferred action on two amendments directly related to education. One would limit the share of state money earmarked for the state's "special needs'' school districts in poor, urban areas, while the other would bar the executive and judicial branches from forcing the regionalization of school districts.

This week is the deadline for approval of amendments in order to be placed on the November ballot, and observers said it was unlikely either proposal would come up for a vote.

Lawmakers' unwillingness to endorse any of the proposed amendments was widely seen as the first major setback to the new Republican majority in the legislature since that party's landslide electoral victory last fall.

On the other hand, the G.O.P. leadership scored an easy win last month in overriding a veto by the Democratic Governor, James J. Florio, of the fiscal 1993 budget. The $14.6-billion budget approved is $1 billion short of what the Governor had requested.

The $4.47 billion earmarked for education in the budget is enough to provide full funding for school districts under the state's Quality Education Act. Over all, however, funding for the state education department fell by $49.3 million.

'Special Needs' Funding

In large measure, the G.O.P. had swept into office as a result of public dissatisfaction with Mr. Florio's Quality Education Act and the substantial tax increases passed by the legislature in 1990 to fund it. The law, passed in response to a state supreme court decision striking down the existing school-funding system, redistributes state aid to the state's 30 neediest districts.

Simply amending or abolishing the Q.E.A. through the legislative process might not be effective, however, since the supreme court has already ruled against the previous school-funding system. Indeed, the Q.E.A. itself faces a court challenge from finance-equity advocates who argue it does not go far enough in reducing funding disparities.

As a result, critics of the Q.E.A. moved to eliminate the section of the constitution on which the court had based its ruling. That language requires the state to provide each child with a "thorough and efficient'' education.

Instead, the proposed amendment would require the state to provide children with the opportunity to function adequately.

The proposal also would cap state aid to the special-needs districts at percent of the state per-pupil average.

But critics argued that the proposal would polarize urban and suburban districts and reduce the state's commitment to education.

"I felt it was a lower standard, which was a wrong way to go. If anything, I thought we should be raising our standards,'' said Assemblywoman Stephanie R. Bush, a Democrat and a member of the education committee.

In the face of public outcries against the amendment, President of the Senate Donald T. DiFrancesco decided not to ask for a vote on the measure.

Even though the Q.E.A. has received a respite, Senator John H. Ewing, the chairman of the education committee, said the funding formula will be changed. "If we have to go back to the current Q.E.A. for 1993-94, it will be disastrous for [middle-income] districts,'' he said. "The state just doesn't have the money.''

Regionalization Debate

Many educators and civil-rights organizations also were sharply critical of a measure banning the forced regionalization of school districts.

Prompted by a court ruling this summer that upheld the state education department's mandate to consolidate three districts in the New York City suburbs, G.O.P. lawmakers drafted an amendment that would prevent the department and the courts from requiring districts to regionalize. Under provisions of the amendment, only the municipalities themselves could vote to unite.

Englewood, one of the districts involved in the current dispute, is made up predominantly of black and Hispanic students, while the Tenafly district's students are primarily white and Asian. (See related story, page 10.)

Assemblyman John E. Rooney, who has spearheaded the measure in the lower chamber, said the amendment was intended to prevent the state from forcing a merger of an inferior district and a superior district for political and financial reasons.

"What you really succeed in doing is destroying the public-school system in New Jersey,'' he argued. "If this continues, you have fewer and fewer students in these districts going to public school.''

Mr. Rooney also disputed charges by opponents that the amendment is racist. "The discrimination, if anything, is on the other side,'' he contended.

The New Jersey School Boards Association, which typically favors individual boards' self-determination, opposed the measure because it would bar judicial involvement in regionalization issues. "That is the place where we draw the line,'' said Frank Belluscio, a spokesman for the group.

It appeared last week that Speaker of the General Assembly Garabed (Chuck) Haytaian was unlikely to seek a vote in his chamber on the regionalization ban.

The Assembly was scheduled to meet on Aug. 3 to clear up any remaining business before the summer break. But Chuck Leitgeb, a spokesman for Assembly Republicans, said he was "almost 99 percent sure'' the proposed amendment would not come up for a vote.

Referendums Rejected

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Constitutional amendments must be approved by voters, and in order to put any of the three issues on the ballot in November, the legislature has to act by Aug. 7.

To get a constitutional amendment on the ballot requires a three-fifths vote in both chambers. If a proposed amendment passes by a simple majority, it can be recalled during the next legislative session, when it needs only another simple majority vote to go on the ballot.

But Republicans will have to start from scratch as far as their campaign for the initiative and referendum process is concerned. The Assembly rejected the measure by a 36-to-28 vote.

Members of the education community had feared that establishment of such a process would ultimately doom education funding. They pointed to the example of California, where property-tax curbs imposed by the voters in 1978 under the landmark Proposition 13 have led to long-term funding problems for the schools.

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