An advisory panel to the New Jersey state board of education has recommended that poor rural districts be considered for designation as “special needs” school districts, a move that could obligate the state to provide intensive support for those systems, as it does for its poorest urban districts.
A group of rural districts has battled the state for eight years, contending that those districts need the same kind of help that 31 specially designated districts get as a result of the ongoing Abbott v. Burke litigation on school finance. Decisions in the case require New Jersey to fund its poorest urban districts at the levels of its wealthiest school systems.
“It’s now decided once and for all that poverty is poverty,” said Frederick A. Jacob, a Millville, N.J., lawyer representing the rural districts. “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 deserved “special needs” designation. In February 2003, New Jersey Commissioner of Education William L. Librera accepted only one of those five as a so-called Abbott district, bringing the total to 31. Some of the rural districts appealed to the state board of education.
The legal committee, which advises the state board, concluded June 15 that all 17 of the original rural districts in the complaint—and possibly even more poor districts around the state—deserve the special-needs designation.
“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,” it said, “mirror those of the students in the Abbott districts, which in some cases are only blocks away.”
Any change in the Abbott designations would have to be approved by the board of education, and could be appealed to the state court system. 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. No date has been set for a decision.