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N.J. Lawmakers Slow Off the Mark To Retool School Aid

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With a court-imposed deadline to overhaul New Jersey's school-funding system fast approaching, politicians have not exactly been racing to beat the clock.

Despite all the attention that has surrounded school-finance troubles in the state, no bills spelling out how the old formula should be changed have even been introduced in the legislature this year. Now, with four months gone in the current session and only four to go before the deadline, speculation has grown that legislators will be hard-pressed to meet the demands the New Jersey Supreme Court set in 1994 when it found the finance system unconstitutional.

Lawmakers, meanwhile, have grumbled that Gov. Christine Todd Whitman has been slow to attach actual dollars to a funding overhaul she proposed in November. And gubernatorial aides grumble back that lawmakers could have shown greater initiative in devising a finance scheme of their own.

They aren't the only ones complaining.

Lawyers who pressed the original school-funding lawsuit 15 years ago asked the state supreme court last week to force the state to funnel more money into poor districts in fiscal 1997.

The Education Law Center of Newark asked that aid to needy districts rise by nearly $200 million in the coming school year, more than three times the $56 million the governor has proposed. The center has been the driving force behind more than 25 years of litigation over the funding system.

Aides to the governor said the administration plans to defend the state against the law center's latest sortie. And they dismissed lawmakers' laments about the progress of the finance plan as unfounded.

"Those are cheap shots," said Becky Taylor, a spokeswoman for Mrs. Whitman. "The governor has shown tremendous leadership."

Two-Step Plan Proposed

At issue once again in New Jersey's funding dispute is the disparity in spending between the state's wealthiest and poorest districts, a gap that now stands at about $1,000 per child.

In July 1994, the state's high court ordered the legislature and the governor to devise a plan by September of this year for closing the gap by the 1997-98 school year, and to substantially narrow it in the meantime. That ruling stemmed from a lawsuit initiated in 1981, Abbott v. Burke, that has led the high court to twice invalidate the finance system on grounds that it shortchanges students in poor cities.

Gov. Whitman this year proposed a two-step approach to complying with the order. The state would develop a core curriculum that spells out for the first time what constitutes the "thorough and efficient education" that the New Jersey Constitution requires. Then, the state would ensure districts have enough money to afford the programs considered necessary. Districts could spend more as long as local voters approved.

Some elements of the curriculum standards, unveiled in February, have stirred opposition, especially a proposal that all students be required to master a second language. The state board of education is expected to vote on some version of the standards this week. Although legislative action is not required, lawmakers unsatisfied with the board's version of the standards may seek to amend them in the legislature. (See Education Week, Feb. 14, 1996.)

Cost Questions Remain

The lack of closure on the curriculum standards has complicated Gov. Whitman's approach to the funding side of the equation.

The governor has consistently said the state's per-pupil spending benchmarks will be based on what it takes to implement the standards. Establishing such a linkage is also important to her strategy for responding to the court.

As a result, her aides said recently that they were awaiting the board's action on the standards before releasing a more detailed funding proposal.

The cost estimates are expected to answer some pivotal questions: who wins under the plan, who loses, and by how much?

"It's unfortunate we haven't had greater information coming out of the administration," said Sen. John H. Ewing, the Republican chairman of the Senate education committee. "One reason might be that they are worried about the figures. There will be districts that will lose money, and these guys [lawmakers] won't vote for it."

Aides to the Republican governor, for their part, have suggested that legislators should recommend funding levels themselves. Lawmakers such as Sen. Gordon A. MacInnes, a Democratic member of Mr. Ewing's committee, greeted that suggestion with ridicule.

"To turn this issue over to the legislature is like turning the issue of classroom behavior over to 7th-grade boys," Mr. MacInnes said. "It's nothing you want to do."

Boost to Cities Urged

Under the 1994 court order, the state is required to bring per-pupil spending for regular education in New Jersey's 30 poorest, mostly urban "special-needs districts" up to the level in many of the state's wealthiest school systems.

Not counting three districts in which spending per pupil has exceeded the average in wealthy districts, the special-needs districts are spending an average of $7,132 per student on regular education, compared with $8,223 in the wealthy communities, according to the Education Law Center. New Jersey's per-student expenditures are the highest in the nation.

The center wants the high court to require the state to add another $141 million to the $56 million aid increase that the governor has proposed for the special-needs districts in the 1996-97 school year. It estimates that doing so would leave a spending gap of about $200 million to be bridged in 1997-98, instead of $341 million if Gov. Whitman's budget goes through.

Even if the state guaranteed that it could come up with that much more money in the second year, the law center argues, districts would have a hard time absorbing it effectively.

"We don't want to come into the final year with that distance to travel," said David G. Sciarra, the law center's executive director. "We want to make sure there's a chance the money gets used on programs that really benefit kids."

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