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2 N.J. Panels Diverge on Funding-Equity Solution

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A pair of commissions charged with finding a solution to New Jersey's protracted problem of inequitable school funding appeared last week to have clouded the issue by recommending dramatically different approaches.

The divergent proposals present Gov. Christine Todd Whitman with tough political decisions as she attempts to deliver on her campaign promise to reduce taxes while satisfying a mandate from the state supreme court that poor schools be funded fairly.

Last week, a commission created by the legislature and former Gov. James J. Florio approved a plan that would bring per-pupil funding in the poorest districts up to the average level of the wealthiest districts within three years.

In the plan's first year of operation, the state would have to provide an estimated $1.3 billion. The panel made no recommendations on raising the revenue, but panel members suggested that an increase in the state sales or income tax would probably be necessary.

Only the week before that commission came to a decision, however, a task force appointed by Governor Whitman and chaired by former Commissioner of Education Saul Cooperman recommended a scheme in which the "special needs'' districts would receive state aid to raise their spending only to 80 percent of wealthy districts' expenditures in four years.

By relying more heavily on locally generated revenue to fund the schools, Mr. Cooperman's plan would avoid the politically explosive issue of state tax increases. On the other hand, most observers give it little chance of being accepted by the supreme court.

An Unpopular Compromise

Until last week, it appeared likely that the commission established during the Florio administration might disband without making recommendations. Despite more than a year of work, the commission was unable to muster the eight votes necessary to make a recommendation. (See Education Week, April 6, 1994.)

Education representatives on the panel worked out a compromise, however, and the plan passed on an 8-to-5 vote.

Albert Burstein, the chairman of the commission, voted against the funding scheme.

"The fundamental flaw I see in it is the notion that you have to go to this high level of spending in order to meet the constitutional standard,'' Mr. Burstein said.

Still, he noted, commission members did agree on two significant points: The 30 poorest districts should have the same level of spending as the average wealthy district, and any additional money must be tied to educational-improvement plans.

Mr. Burstein and others doubt that Mrs. Whitman will support the funding plan because of its cost.

"Certainly she has every right to make a political decision. Our job was to satisfy the court,'' said Robert Boose, the executive director of the New Jersey School Boards Association and a commission member who voted for the plan.

The case again goes before the supreme court next month.

The plan approved last week embodies elements of the Quality Education Act, a 1990 law that gave more state aid to poor districts while reducing and phasing out aid to middle-income and wealthier districts. Lawmakers essentially dismantled the Q.E.A. a year later.

A state court subsequently ruled that the revised financing formula was not enough to close the gap between rich and poor districts.

A recent study by the Center for Educational Policy Analysis at Rutgers University found that poor districts put the extra funding provided by the Q.E.A. to good use, while the rich districts were not harmed by the reduction in funds.

What the study could not determine, however, was how the 460 districts in between fared. "It's hard for us to tell if they're hurting,'' said William A. Firestone, the center's director.

A Fiscal Shell Game?

Meanwhile, Mrs. Whitman's funding plans for 1994-95 have met with resistance as many districts find themselves losing state aid.

Although the state-aid budget is level funded, more than 300 districts will lose money this year, according to an analysis by the New Jersey Education Association.

"She really is playing shell games at the highest level,'' said Karen Joseph, a spokeswoman for the teachers' union.

"She's shifting the costs on to [municipalities' and districts'] backs and then pointing the finger at them if they're not holding taxes down,'' Ms. Joseph contended.

The Union school district is one of those facing a cut. Mrs. Whitman had praised the blue-collar district after a study showed it operated one of the most cost-efficient, educationally sound programs in the state.

"As a reward, I have been cut $1.5 million in state aid,'' said Superintendent James M. Caulfield.

"These other plans do not deal centrally with the issue,'' Mr. Caulfield said. "Unless we have a broad-based tax, we will never be able to put this thing right.''

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