Published Online: June 21, 2005

N.J. Panel Recommends Expanding Number of 'Special Needs' Districts

An advisory panel to the New Jersey board of education has recommended that poor rural school districts be considered for designation as “special needs” districts, a move that could obligate the state to provide for those rural systems intensive support similar to what it gives its poorest urban districts.

The June 15 recommendation by the state board’s legal committee represents a significant development in an eight-year legal effort by a group of poor, rural districts. They have argued that they need intensive state help—including more money—similar to that received by 31 urban districts as a result of the ongoing Abbott v. Burke litigation. Decisions in that case require New Jersey to fund its poorest urban districts at the levels of its wealthiest districts, spend billions on school facilities, and provide extra services such as full-day preschool to offset the effects of poverty.

Frederick A. Jacob, a Millville, N.J., lawyer representing the rural districts in the case, known as Bacon v. New Jersey State Department of Education, said the recommendation is important because it makes clear that smaller rural districts can be as educationally needy as big-city districts. “It’s now decided once and for all that poverty is poverty,” he said in an interview. “It’s poverty that creates educational issues, not urban-ness.”

An administrative law judge decided in December 2002 that only five of the original 17 plaintiff rural districts deserve the special-needs designation. But in February 2003, state Commissioner of Education William L. Librera accepted only one of the five as an Abbott district, bringing the total to 31. Some of the rural districts appealed to the state board of education.

The board’s legal committee concluded that all 17 of the original rural districts in the complaint—and possibly even more poor districts not named in the action—deserve special-needs designation. The panel considered many indicators of financial need, such as the communities’ income levels and tax burdens, and educational need, such as their large class sizes, limited academic programming, and high truancy rates.

“We can only conclude that the students of these districts are not being afforded a thorough and efficient education” as required by state law, the panel said. “… The conditions under which these students live mirror those of the students in the Abbott districts, which in some cases are only blocks away.”

The panel said the state must devote additional resources to the poor, rural districts, but stopped short of specifying what level of aid or specific programs should be provided. Instead, it proposes that the commissioner undertake individual assessments of each district’s needs and report back to the board of education in December.

Attorneys in the case said the state board was scheduled to consider the legal committee’s report in July.

No Quick Fix

Despite the committee’s strong conclusions, no change in the Abbott designations could occur quickly. Changes would have to be approved by the board of education, and could be taken to the state court system by the districts on appeal.

State officials declined to comment on the legal committee’s report, saying it would be inappropriate to do so before it had been considered by the board. But David G. Sciarra, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs in the Abbott case, said the recommendation in Bacon “opens the door to the next big set of challenges, which is how to expand the Abbott remedies to other districts statewide.”

The panel’s recommendation comes as the state is actively trying to revise the criteria by which it designates Abbott districts.

Mr. Librera last week submitted to the legislature a proposal that would require a stricter showing of financial need by districts in order to be eligible. He made the same recommendation in 2003, but it was not adopted by the legislature. A legislative analysis at that time found that 13 districts would lose their designation as Abbott districts, but Mr. Librera said that analysis overlooked the indicators of educational adequacy that must be examined under his revised criteria. Considering both financial and educational factors, he said, could remove three to eight districts from the current Abbott list.

He said in an interview last week that Abbott designations are not meant to exist “in perpetuity,” and that some districts’ financial health and educational attainment has changed sufficiently to warrant their removal. Abbott remedies, he said, should not be the only mechanism through which the state assists districts in particular need.

“We continue to think of ourselves as the laboratory in the country for this kind of decision,” Mr. Librera said, “including the struggles that go along with it, how you deal with criteria, how you deal with [districts’] progress, how you deal with changes in this.”

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