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Problems in Tracking Impact Of Extra N.J. Funding Found

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An inadequate monitoring system has made it virtually impossible to determine the impact of extra state funding on poor school districts in New Jersey, a report by a child-advocacy group contends.

"There is presently no way to tell with any certainty and accuracy how the special-needs districts utilized their 1991-92 funds for educational improvement,'' concludes the report, released late last month by the Association for Children of New Jersey.

Moreover, "the plans to utilize the current or a similar process in future school years do not provide confidence these serious gaps will be resolved,'' the report maintains.

The report, the product of an 18-month study, comes out as Republican legislative leaders are revising the 1990 law that provided the extra funding for poor districts. (See Education Week, Sept. 30, 1992.)

The law, passed in the wake of a state supreme court decision overturning the existing school-finance system, pumped money into 30 poor, urban districts in an attempt to provide equitable educational opportunities for all children.

Last year, amid taxpayer outrage over increased taxes that were used to fund the higher spending levels, lawmakers amended the act and reduced the amount of money earmarked for the special-needs districts.

Weaknesses Cited

The advocacy group undertook the project both to examine the needs of the districts and to evaluate the state education department's plans for holding them accountable.

The investigation found weaknesses in five critical areas: criteria for defining educational improvements; the amount of funding provided to each district for educational improvements; state guidelines to help districts prioritize their needs; state oversight of spending; and evaluation measures.

For example, some districts may have used part of the funding as a way to relieve the local tax burden, according to the association.

The report also criticizes the state for not helping districts set priorities, for example in establishing preschool classes or full-day kindergarten.

The report also faults the department for monitoring only "the funding the district chooses to set aside'' in its educational-improvement plan, rather than the total amount the district receives for improvement.

Along with highlighting flaws in the system of accountability, the report emphasizes the extraordinary tasks schools in these districts face. The association found extremely high levels of poverty, insufficient school resources, and seriously deteriorated facilities.

The findings "clearly confirm the need for additional funding,'' the report notes.

While the financial deficiencies remain great, the A.C.N.J. stressed the need for accountability in order to safeguard current and increased levels of funding.

"Questions about accountability, I hope, would transcend political considerations,'' said Cecilia Zalkind, the assistant director of the association and the author of the report.

"Accountability is a great way to advocate for laws for future funding,'' she said.

Larry Leverett, the assistant commissioner for urban education, said the group had lacked information to produce the report. "Although there are problems with the accuracy, the recommendations are sound and appropriate and are consistent with actions that have been taken or proposed to the board of education.''

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