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Chief Releases Plan To Revise Funding in N.J.

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New Jersey's public schools have taught two generations of children since the state supreme court first ruled that education-funding patterns there discriminated against the poor.

Now, a new plan put forth by the state education commissioner to satisfy the latest judicial decree could dramatically alter not just the funding scheme but the entire political and educational landscape in the more than 600 New Jersey school districts.

It would thrust district budgets and curriculum standards--matters traditionally left to local discretion--into the hands of the state.

"This is an attempt to step back and really try to reach consensus as a state about what we want the children to learn," said Commissioner Leo Klagholz, who released the new finance plan late last month.

He wants the state to define what constitutes a "thorough and efficient" education and then determine how much it would cost to meet the definition.

But despite its bold new direction, the proposal, which a joint legislative committee takes up this week, has its doubters. Some educators and public school advocates complain that it could delay improvements for yet another generation of students while providing poor schools with less money and fewer resources than they had anticipated.

The legislature's longstanding school-finance problems began when the supreme court first struck down the system in 1973. At the core of the legal argument is the clause in the New Jersey Constitution that requires the state to provide students with a thorough and efficient education, which the courts have come to define as financial parity.

In a July 1994 decision, the high court ordered the state to achieve complete fiscal equity between rich and poor districts by the 1997-98 school year and to show significant progress in the intervening years. Equity was to be based on the average per-pupil spending of the wealthy districts. (See Education Week, Aug. 3, 1994.)

Rather than bring per-pupil spending into line, Mr. Klagholz is urging state lawmakers to go back to the drawing board and actually define a sound basic education. The state would then combine state and local money to pay for that in each school district.

New Jersey spends more money per pupil than any other state--$8,770 in 1993--but ranks near the bottom in the proportion of dollars that are used in direct support of classroom instruction.

Under Mr. Klagholz's plan, the state would pay for costs over and above what it deemed local districts could afford based on their property wealth and income.

Districts that wanted to offer courses, services, or other features outside the "thorough and efficient" definition--extra foreign languages or lighted football fields, for example--would have to go to local voters for approval. Beyond paying for those added costs, the annual budget-voting process, which takes place in April, would be eliminated. School board elections would be combined with general elections in November.

Centralized Standards

In large measure, what is thorough and efficient would be spelled out by a set of curriculum standards that Mr. Klagholz intends to present to the state school board next month. The standards are expected to describe what students should learn in mathematics, science, English language arts, social studies, world languages, the arts, career education, and health and physical education.

Students would be tested in grades 4, 8, and 11 to gauge whether they have met the standards. The state already tests 8th and 11th graders; a test for 4th graders is in the works. Mr. Klagholz said those assessments would be reworked to match the curriculum guidelines.

"Mostly what we have is the piecemeal accumulation of curriculum requirements," he said.

Centralized curriculum guidelines, though, may be hard for many local policymakers to swallow in a state that treasures home rule.

"The good news is, they're trying to define 'thorough and efficient' around educational quality," said Margaret E. Goertz, a professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied New Jersey schools and lives in the state. "In New Jersey, that is being read as state curriculum, which doesn't sit well."

Other observers argue that Mr. Klagholz has put the cart before the horse.

Robert E. Boose, the executive director of the New Jersey School Boards Association, said that standards should have been the focus of the plan. "He put together a financial plan absent the standards," said Mr. Boose. He said the state should target resources only after it determines what children should learn.

Mr. Klagholz also recommended taking a different tack with at-risk and special-education students.

He identified about 180 districts with large concentrations of poor students to receive aid from a separate pool of "at risk" funds. In many of the districts, the additional money would have to be used to set up preschool and all-day-kindergarten programs. The rest would be earmarked to help meet the health and social-services needs of elementary students.

Further, the commissioner proposed capping the proportion of special-education students in a district at 10 percent.

'Good for All'

Kenneth D. Hall, a consultant to the Matawan Aberdeen district and the president of a group of middle-income districts that have seen rising property taxes in the past few years, called the plan a noble effort.

"I think that Dr. Klagholz is approaching this in a manner that we haven't had before," Mr. Hall said. "Once we define what thorough and efficient is, and the state agrees to pay for it, it's going to be good for all the kids in New Jersey."

But some observers say the plan appears to be a way ultimately to reduce the state's share of education funding.

In July 1994, poor districts were spending about 84 percent of what wealthy districts spent.

Paul L. Tractenberg, the founder of the Education Law Center in Newark, which has long represented the poor urban districts, does not expect that poor districts would see much of a per-pupil boost. "The state's game plan is essentially to say all of that is irrelevant; that is yesterday's parity. Tomorrow's parity is going to be based on our plan."

Mr. Klagholz, however, said it would be wrong to assume that his proposal would cost the state less.

Sen. John Ewing, the chairman of the joint panel, acknowledged that New Jerseyans will resist more state control. But, he said, changes must be made. "The state is not just a bottomless pit with money in it."

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