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Whitman's School-Funding Plan Getting Mixed Reviews

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Trenton, N.J.

Since unveiling her new plan for resolving one of the most protracted school-finance fights in the nation, Gov. Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey has been hearing ample evidence of why a solution has been so hard to find.

To veteran state Sen. John H. Ewing, Mrs. Whitman's plan just may prove a cure for the funding battles that have plagued the state for 25 years.

To Paul Tractenberg, a longtime school-finance activist, it's a sellout of poor urban schoolchildren.

And to Salvatore Sansone, the superintendent of the Hanover Township schools in Morris County, it could spell disaster for the state's best-performing schools.

The governor's plan--spelled out in detail earlier this month--calls for dramatically recasting the way the state sets its school-funding levels by pegging them to the cost of providing a specific set of educational programs. And it may mark the first time a state has dealt with a court-ordered school-finance overhaul by advocating a spending cut.

After outlining the plan in November, the governor this month finally tackled the thorny bottom-line fiscal issues, addressing the question of what an adequate public education should cost.

The answer, more or less, is $8,285 per pupil.

That's the average the plan proposes that schools statewide should spend in 1997-98, the formula's first year. The actual limit for each district would vary depending on local conditions.

The figure is $130 per pupil less than what schools are projected to spend in the school year that begins this fall. But administration officials are confident that all of the state's schools can get by easily on the $10.4 billion they proposed for 1997-98. Pointing out that New Jersey tops the nation in per-pupil spending and has many small districts, officials insist there is plenty of room to save money.

Negative Reactions

As lawmakers scramble to meet a September court deadline for revamping the way the state pays for its schools, Mrs. Whitman's proposal is expected to be the foundation of their work.

Although many details of the governor's plan remain sketchy, wealthy districts, poor districts, and districts in between are all raising objections.

Among the plan's flashpoints is the leeway it allows districts to exceed the state-prescribed spending limit as long as local voters agree.

Officials in poor districts say that provision would let wealthier districts keep outspending them by thousands of dollars per student.

Higher-spending districts, meanwhile, are equally unhappy at the idea of asking voters to approve huge chunks of their existing budgets that the state would deem superfluous.

"It's terrible," said Mr. Sansone, whose 1,130-student district spends roughly $11,000 per pupil and would have to win voter approval to continue many of its programs. "It's dysfunctional and destructive to quality schools in New Jersey."

But Mr. Ewing, the chairman of the Senate education committee, said it makes sense to give wealthier communities the flexibility to spend more as long as other districts are getting "a good strong basic education."

"Maybe you drive a Mercedes and I can only afford a Taurus," he said. "I don't see why I should be given a Mercedes just because you have one. Not everyone gets to join the country club."

Fairness Redefined

The new plan is the outgrowth of a 1994 New Jersey Supreme Court decision that threw out the current funding system because of the disparities it created between well-to-do and poor districts.

But the governor's proposal effectively ignores a central feature of that ruling: an order that the state guarantee that its poorest 30 districts spend as much per pupil on regular education as the 120 richest by 1997.

Mrs. Whitman argues that the court resorted to comparing poor districts' budgets with those of rich districts only because it lacked a more meaningful yardstick of needy districts' offerings.

She says her new approach fills that void in two ways. First, through a new set of curriculum standards adopted by the state school board, it spells out the elements of a quality education. And second, through the new funding formula, it establishes how much is needed to meet those standards.

Court Fight Continues

But Mr. Tractenberg, the founder of the Education Law Center in Newark, hardly sees Mrs. Whitman's plan as progressive.

The center has been battling the state over school funding since 1970. Mr. Tractenberg, a Rutgers University law professor, says he believes the latest proposed solution turns its back on poor urban students.

He predicts that the state will have a tough time convincing the court that it should allow spending above the state-prescribed amount when needy districts would not have access to the same resources.

And in light of the progress made since 1991 toward closing the spending gap between urban and suburban schools, Mr. Tractenberg said, there is no reason to abandon the quest for dollar-for-dollar parity.

"There's been a dramatic leveling off in what the high-wealth districts are spending," Mr. Tractenberg said.

"It would be ironic and sad in the extreme if they pulled back now with a realistic target finally in reach," he said.

Last week, as part of its effort to win an immediate aid boost for poor districts, the law center argued in court papers that the new plan appears to be unconstitutional.

The center is asking the high court to require the state to add an extra $141 million to needy districts' budgets in the fiscal year starting in July.

The administration's plan calls for earmarking nearly that amount--$136 million--more for the poor districts as part of a statewide $235 million increase in state aid in 1997-98.

But because of enrollment drops and an influx of state aid in recent years that has boosted their spending levels, districts in some poor communities face a funding cut under the plan. The state-run Newark schools, for example, which spend more than $10,000 per pupil, stand to lose $30.5 million, or 8 percent of their aid.

As debate over the plan plays out in the courts and the legislature, many school officials say they are groping for a handle on what it will mean for them. And they are trying hard not to panic.

"I'll get nervous about it when it's January of 1997 and I'm starting to put my budget together," said Frank L. White, the superintendent of the 400-student Long Beach Island district in Ocean County. "Until then, it's wait and see."

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