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N.J. To Debate Standards Before Revisiting School-Finance Issue

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Gov. Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey has launched an unusual effort that ties the state's long-running attempts to devise an equitable school-finance system with the national movement to set standards for what students should learn in school.

New Jersey is under a mandate from the state supreme court to equalize spending between its 300 poorest urban school districts and its 120 wealthiest districts by September 1996.

Toward that goal, Governor Whitman and Commissioner of Education Leo F. Klagholz recently called for a re-examination of the assumptions that underlie the existing funding system.

Instead of tinkering with the system by trying to boost the funding of poorer districts to the level of wealthier ones, they said, the state should determine what constitutes the "thorough and efficient" education guaranteed by the state constitution. The state then could determine the cost of such an education and distribute aid accordingly.

"We need to define what we want to achieve in the school system," Governor Whitman said during a Feb. 16 news conference. "We have to give all our children parity in education, but until we know what it is we're trying to deliver, we can't determine if we've done that."

Late last week, Governor Whitman, Mr. Klagholz, and U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley were scheduled to appear on a televised statewide "town meeting" to kick off a seven-month period of public discussion of proposed educational standards.

State officials will hold hearings across the state during that time to address this question: "What are the elements of schooling that are essential to providing a 'thorough and efficient' education and, therefore, are those for which funding must be guaranteed in all school districts throughout the state?"

Flawed Assumptions?

The Governor hopes that by next January, she will be ready to propose legislation tying the definition of a thorough and efficient education to a new finance formula.

A 28-page report by the state education department expands on the proposal by stating that past efforts to meet the court mandates on school funding were flawed because the spending levels in well-to-do districts are not necessarily based on sound assumptions.

For example, school districts appeal to the state education department each year to restore budget items removed by municipal authorities. The state often cites "constitutional necessity" in restoring such items, even though other districts may not have similar expenditures.

Wide-ranging spending levels reflect a "system that, over time, has evolved ways of protecting and supporting its pursuit of the highest spending levels that the public-funding market in each municipality will bear," the report argues.

The proposed system would not treat school funding and finance equity as ends in themselves, it says, but "as means by which to enhance educational quality and equality, as reflected by gains in student achievement."

Districts with large numbers of low-income students would continue to get extra aid under such a system, the report says, but such aid would be targeted at "redressing negative environmental influences."

Frank Belluscio, a spokesman for the New Jersey School Boards Association, said school districts welcome the planned public debate.

"It's a better way to approach the issue of school funding," he said. "We've been spinning our wheels."

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