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N.J. Unveils Reform Plans for Urban Districts

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New Jersey officials were once again on the hot seat last week as they sought to defend two newly released plans for overhauling instruction and upgrading facilities in the 28 poor districts at the heart of the state's epic school-funding fight.

The instructional plan, the first of two reports ordered by the state's high court last spring, strongly emphasizes improvements at the elementary school level and in early-childhood education. The most pointed proposal is for all 319 elementary schools in the affected districts to adopt a program of "whole school" reform known as Success For All.

On the facilities front, the plan put forward by Commissioner of Education Leo F. Klagholz calls for spending at least $1.8 billion over three years on fully state-financed projects to upgrade the poor districts' nearly 430 schools. The proposal, which leaves it up to the governor and the legislature to devise a specific funding mechanism, calls for a strong state role in approving and overseeing the refurbishing projects.

Leo F. Klagholz

State leaders portray the proposals, which are the subject of ongoing court hearings that opened in Trenton last week, as fair and effective blueprints for combating the disadvantages of urban schoolchildren. But lawyers for those children assailed the plans as the state's latest attempt to ignore the high court's directives and wriggle out of its responsibilities to city schools.

"They're both disasters," Steve Block, the director of special projects for the Education Law Center, said of the plans. The Newark-based advocacy group has been battling the state in court for more urban-education funding since the 1970s.

Taken together, the instructional and facilities plans envision New Jersey playing a far more direct and prescriptive role in urban education than most states do. That hands-on approach has been dictated in large part by the state supreme court, which has declared the education finance system unconstitutional four times since 1973. But it is also in character for a state that during the past eight years has taken over the day-to-day operations of its three largest school systems--Newark, Jersey City, and Paterson.

"This is an extension of a pattern in the state of New Jersey," said William A. Firestone, a professor of educational policy at Rutgers University's graduate school of education. "New Jersey has a history of being very prescriptive with its urban schools."

Christine Johnson of the Denver-based Education Commission of the States said New Jersey's attempt to direct schools to adopt a particular reform model marked a new approach for state government. But she called it consistent with a trend among state leaders of looking more critically at "what works" in urban education.

Judicial Impetus

New Jersey's involvement with its urban schools has been dominated for a generation by the funding case. Last May, the high court dealt Gov. Christine Todd Whitman its latest blow, ordering the state to immediately lift spending in the 28 districts to the average amount expended in the state's wealthiest suburbs. ("For 4th Time, Court Rejects N.J. Formula," May 21, 1997.)

The ruling directed the state to fully assess the needs of students in poor city schools, identify the precise programs and services they require, and "devise a plan for state or state-assisted implementation of the identified programs." The court also ordered the state to assess the facilities needs of the urban districts and draft a plan for addressing them.

Last week, focusing on the instructional plan, the Education Law Center accused the state of failing to chronicle the actual needs of urban students and ignoring the benefits of after-school programs, summer school, and other supplemental programs. It also dismissed the department's contention that the urban districts should be able to implement its recommended reforms without additional money.

The court hearings, which are also to include testimony on the facilities proposal, are expected to continue for several weeks. The judge is under a Dec. 31 deadline to report back to the state supreme court on New Jersey's compliance efforts.

In the facilities report submitted to the court last week, the education department called for setting a statewide standard for facilities costs by this coming January. The 28 districts would then assess their needs by January 1999 and submit proposals to the state. Projects that fell within the cost standards would be financed fully by the state, the department proposed, while any costs exceeding state limits would be picked up by local taxpayers.

The report estimates that the districts now need $437 million to build more than 3,100 additional classrooms, even without any increase in their current enrollment of 261,000 students. It also cautions that the total price tag of $1.8 billion may underestimate the need.

Gov. Whitman also stressed that any school facilities initiative should help all of the state's school systems, not only those covered by the court order. Estimates of the state's full facilities needs range from $6 billion to more than $16 billion.

Reform Model Endorsed

In the instructional report, the education department strongly endorsed the concept of whole-school reform, rather than "merely appending a grocery list of supplemental programs to the status quo of each individual school."

Concluding that Success For All had compiled the best track record with urban schoolchildren, the department recommended that all elementary schools in the 28 districts be required to implement the program. The only exceptions, the department said, should be granted when local officials produce "a convincing case" that an alternative reform model would prove equally effective. "The burden of proof must rest heavily with the district and school," the report states.

Success For All, crafted 10 years ago by researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, focuses intensely on preventing students from falling behind, especially in reading, in the early grades. Run by the Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed at Risk at Johns Hopkins, the program operates in about 750 schools nationwide and has increased student achievement at many of those sites.

New Jersey officials propose phasing the program in, starting with 50 schools next year. The department's vote of confidence in Success For All represents another feather in the cap for a program that has been rapidly gaining admirers. In New York City, for example, the school district is requiring use of the program in a group of low-performing schools that are overseen directly by the city schools chancellor.

Nonetheless, the law center pointed to a lack of research on the program's effectiveness in the 14 New Jersey schools where it is now being used, and questioned whether it could be implemented with existing funds.

Robert E. Slavin, a Johns Hopkins professor and the director of Success For All, said last week that his team would only work with schools in which 80 percent of the faculty endorsed using the program. For that reason, he said it was misleading to suggest that the state could actually mandate the program's use.

"I don't know how that's going to work out in practice,"he said.

Money Concerns

Jack DeTalvo, the president of the New Jersey Urban Superintendents Association, said his members did not object to Success For All. But he said they opposed having to sacrifice other programs, including remedial instruction in the upper grades, to pay for it. Overall, urban districts do not believe they have enough money to make the changes called for by the state, Mr. DeTalvo said.

In addition to, and as part of, Success For All, the report calls for requiring elementary schools in the 28 districts to institute half-day public preschool; full-day kindergarten; one-on-one tutoring; and class sizes of no more than 21 students in grades K-3 and 24 students in grades 4 and 5. It also proposes requiring school-based decisionmaking; access to health and social services; improved security and disciplinary codes; and integrating technology into the curriculum.

At the secondary level, the department said it was unable to identify a reform model that it felt comfortable endorsing. Instead, it recommended programs such as alternative schools for disruptive students, school-to-work programs, and enhanced security and codes of conduct. "Until such time as a suitable whole-school reform approach for secondary schools can be identified," the report says, "a partial approach to implementing supplemental programs will have to suffice."

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Web Resources
  • Read the New Jersey Department of Education's report to the court on school facilities.
  • The department also has posted a report to the court on supplemental programs in elementary schools on its Web site.
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