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N.J. Judge Urges Vast Aid Boost for Urban Schools

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A New Jersey judge last week prescribed another massive infusion of state aid for city schools, calling for supplemental programs costing $312 million annually and facilities upgrades of up to $2.8 billion in 28 poor districts.

In a 139-page decision that is now before the state supreme court, Superior Court Judge Michael Patrick King embraced a state plan to require whole-school reform in every elementary school in those districts. The judge agreed with the state's strong endorsement of Success For All, a reform program emphasizing early literacy developed by researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, though he said other models should be allowed.

But he said the state needs to go further to combat the disadvantages hobbling the more than 265,000 students in the urban districts. To this end, he called for the immediate adoption of full-day kindergarten classes as well as all-day preschool programs for children ages 3 and 4. The judge also urged the creation of summer school programs, costing an estimated $100 million, and $40 million in school-based health and social services, including after-school tutoring.

The decision is the latest development in a largely successful crusade by the Newark-based Education Law Center for more funding for New Jersey's urban schools, a fight that has raged for nearly three decades.

Ruling Called a Compromise

If Judge King's recommendations are accepted by the supreme court, New Jersey's role in determining how urban schools run their classrooms would be unprecedented. So too would be its obligation to provide free public schooling prior to kindergarten.

"It is clearly a groundbreaking decision for urban education in this country," said David Sciarra, the center's executive director. "It's where we need to go as a nation."

Judge King portrayed the state's stance in the epic case, known as Abbott v. Burke, as "likely driven by a certain measure of political pragmatism" and the law center's "by optimistic, well-meaning idealism." He said his decision "may be viewed in a certain sense as a compromise but the court is always aware that state constitutional rights cannot be discounted with the same currency as commercial or political utility."

State officials said that while they were pleased with the judge's endorsement of whole-school reform, they viewed his other recommendations as judicial overreaching.

Noting that the state constitution requires schooling only for children ages 5 through 18, Attorney General Peter Verniero said "no court can mandate these programs." He and Commissioner of Education Leo F. Klagholz also argued that research has not proven the value of the extra programs the judge endorsed.

"Providing high-quality instruction in a rigorous academic curriculum is a great challenge in itself," Mr. Klagholz said. "There is a real danger that expanding that traditional mission will dilute the quality of services."

Expert Influences Findings

Judge King's report follows hearings in the fall that were ordered by the supreme court last spring when it found that the school funding formula unconstitutionally shortchanges needy urban schools. ("For 4th Time, Court Rejects N.J. Formula," May 21, 1997.)

At that time, the justices directed state leaders to boost funding by nearly $250 million this school year to raise spending in the 28 districts to the average of what is spent per pupil in the state's 120 wealthiest districts. The court also ordered Judge King to determine what extra programs and services were needed in the poor districts, and to assess what it would take to bring their facilities up to snuff.

The judge's findings on the supplemental programs were strongly influenced by a report by Allen R. Odden, a school finance expert at the University of Wisconsin-Madison hired as a consultant by the court. Mr. Odden recommended extra spending in the $350 million range.

The judge generally accepted the state's estimate that $2.4 billion was needed to repair urban schools and accommodate whole-school reform. But he said adding space for the preschool programs would up that total to between $2.7 billion and $2.8 billion.

In a conclusion summing up his findings, Judge King quoted at length from Quality Counts '98, a 50-state, 270-page report focused on urban schools that Education Week released earlier this month.

As that report demonstrates, the judge wrote, "the problems of urban education are national, not peculiar to New Jersey. The crisis is obvious; the solutions are elusive."

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Web Resources
  • Read a statement Gov. Whitman issued in January 1997 regarding New Jersey's school-funding lawsuit.
  • See an excerpt from the 1997 New Jersey State of the State address that highlights Gov. Whitman's plans to link public school spending to standards.
  • See an overview of the New Jersey State Supreme Court.
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