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Whitman Faces Finance Balancing Act in N.J.

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When Christine Todd Whitman takes the oath of office next week, the new Governor of New Jersey will face a crucial test in the early days of her young administration: finding a way to satisfy the New Jersey Supreme Court, her Republican colleagues in the legislature, and the voters on the politically charged issue of education funding.

Two separate committees are exploring the issue, one appointed by Mrs. Whitman and the other appointed during the administration of the outgoing Governor, James J. Florio. The recommendations of both are expected within the first month or two of her administration.

Then Mrs. Whitman will find herself approximately where Mr. Florio was four years ago: revamping a state funding formula that the courts have declared inadequate and unconstitutional.

"She has given us a clear message. She wants the spending controlled,'' said Saul Cooperman, the chairman of the Governor-elect's education commission and a former state commissioner of education.

At the same time, Mr. Cooperman said, Mrs. Whitman does not want to force municipalities to hike local property taxes.

Given those restrictions, Mr. Cooperman said, "how do we please the supreme court, which has come out and said equality of opportunity means equality of dollars?''

Funding is not the only education issue Mrs. Whitman will confront.

Vouchers and Teachers

Observers believe Mrs. Whitman will give the go-ahead to a narrow private-school-voucher plan for Jersey City alone. They also predict that she will permit the state education department to continue an ongoing process that will likely lead to the takeover of the Newark public schools.

How she will handle the issue of renewable teacher certification is less predictable, although observers think she will make changes.

Yet, as potentially explosive as all these issues are, funding overshadows all else.

"To me, that is the major issue right now,'' said Frank Belluscio, a spokesman for the New Jersey School Boards Association. "These other policy initiatives, I don't see them as immediate concerns.''

Last year, for the first time in years, New Jersey school districts knew well in advance how much state aid they would receive for the 1993-94 school year, due to an agreement between the state and a coalition of education groups.

But this year there is no agreement. Moreover, Mrs. Whitman is likely to submit her budget plan a month later than usual, shortening considerably the amount of time districts have to prepare their budgets, which will go before the voters April 19.

Despite this immediate budgetary uncertainty, the education community is more concerned about Mrs. Whitman's long-term plans.

Last year, a state court found that the Quality Education Act of 1990 did not fulfill the requirements of a ruling the state supreme court handed down earlier in 1990. That decision essentially required the state to ante up considerably more money for poor, urban districts. (See Education Week, Sept. 8, 1993.)

Court Order Anticipated

The high court is expected to take up the issue once again before this summer and order remedies at that time.

Robert A. Bonazzi, the executive director of the New Jersey Education Association, said the teachers' union anticipates that the court will order the state to increase funding to the urban districts by $450 million to $600 million.

"It's going to have a pretty profound effect on education in our state,'' Mr. Bonazzi said. "The challenge is going to be to balance the needs of all of the districts.''

But if lawmakers respond as they did when the original Q.E.A. formula was enacted, they will strongly resist allowing a major shift of funds from suburban districts to special-needs systems. If so, Mrs. Whitman is likely to have trouble controlling education spending and keeping her campaign pledge to voters to cut the state income tax by 30 percent over three years.

When the G.O.P. majority in both chambers of the legislature balked at Mr. Florio's plan to shift resources from the wealthy and middle-class districts that the Republicans represented to the poor urban districts generally represented by Democrats, Mr. Florio modified his spending plan to make it more generous to middle-income districts.

But that action spurred the poor districts to take the issue back into the courts for another go-round.

Should Mrs. Whitman and the legislature adopt a new funding system, "in essence what happens is the whole Abbott v. Burke case becomes moot,'' Mr. Belluscio said, referring to the lawsuit that challenged the state funding formula.

"It would be a whole new ballgame,'' he said.

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