New Jersey Educators Seek Effective Use Of Urban Schools’ Huge Funding Increases

By Jonathan Weisman — October 10, 1990 9 min read

New Jersey educators are under heavy pressure this fall to make sure that a massive expansion and redistribution of state aid to urban schools actually makes a difference in overcoming years of educational neglect.

State officials, who are facing a public outcry touched off when the legislature raised taxes to fund the new aid, are setting up mechanisms to guarantee that the money is spent effectively. At the same time, they also must contend with the threat of renewed litigation if they fail to do enough to reduce funding disparities between rich and poor districts.

“This is the most exciting effort to improve urban education that the nation has ever seen,” said Commissioner of Education John Ellis.

Urban educators, meanwhile, are struggling to decide which of their schools’ many problems they will attack with their $1.1 billion in new state aid next year.

“We’re talking about bringing our schools into the 1990’s,” said Kirk Smith, a spokesman for the Newark schools. “We’re talking about addressing deficient areas that have been deficient for 10 years.”

The spark for all this activity came in June, when the state supreme court--in a decision hailed as the “Magna Carta for urban schoolchildren"--declared the state’s school-funding system “unconstitutional as applied to poorer urban school districts.” Ruling in Abbott v. Burke, the court ordered the state to bring spending in those districts up to the level of the state’s wealthiest school systems. (See Education Week, June 13, 1990.)

Answering the Tax Revolt

The response of Gov. James J. Florio and the legislature was the Quality Education Act, which will redirect state aid from the state’s 146 richest school systems to 30 “special needs” urban districts, as well as to 362 other districts. (See Education Week, Aug. 1, 1990.)

The 30 urban districts represent a quarter of the state’s schoolchildren.

Under the bill, which cleared the legislature only a little more than two weeks after the court’s ruling, education funding will increase by at least 6.5 percent for all 578 school districts next year.

By the 1995-96 school year, however, funding for 146 affluent systems will be completely phased out, explained Roger Shatzkin, a spokesman for the state education department.

To fund the education bill and reduce a $600-million state deficit, lawmakers also approved $2.8 billion in new and increased taxes--reportedly the largest state tax increase in U.S. history.

Now school officials and the Florio Administration face a “serious tax revolt” that has put them under intense pressure to get results, said Tom Corcoran, the Governor’s education-policy adviser.

“The public has a right to be skeptical,” he said. “Education costs have gone up dramatically. But the proof will be in the pudding. The answer to the tax revolt is to show that their money is well spent.”

To reach that goal, the state has created an elaborate system to watch over districts’ efforts to draft and implement school-improvement plans. The system includes internal and external review teams of teachers, administrators, community activists, and business leaders from inside and outside the districts.

In addition, Governor Florio last month asked the legislature to create a new post of inspector general to serve as an “education watchdog” against the waste of tax money. There will also be an Urban Advisory Group, which Mr. Corcoran said he hopes will include some of the best education minds in the country.

Mr. Corcoran said he also expects to see modifications in the state testing system that would move away from multiple-choice exams to a more performance-oriented evaluation.

A bill covering testing, school-district monitoring, and teacher certification is expected to pass this fall, he said. The bill would lengthen the current five-year certification of teachers to eight years in order to reduce state-imposed burdens on districts, he noted.

Set Up for a Fall?

Betty Kraemer, president of the New Jersey Education Association, acknowledged that the pressure is on to produce results.

“The public in general is very mistrustful,” she said. “They’re asking, ‘Is this going to go to the same old thing, or are they really going to turn things around?”’

But the union president also added a note of skepticism about state monitoring of districts’ new programs. All the review teams, she said, are beginning to look like “a lumbering giant rolling around these 30 [special-needs] districts.”

And Mr. Smith of Newark warned that the urban districts were being set up for a fall.

It would be wrong, he argued, to demand immediate improvements in schools that have been devastated by years of neglect. “We want, no, we demand a reasonable amount of time to let the new programs take hold,’' he said.

“The suburban districts [that will lose money] are going to look at us next year and say, ‘Hey their test scores didn’t even go up,”’ Mr. Smith predicted.

“We don’t expect to see dramatic results in a year,” Mr. Ellis responded. “That’s foolish. But we do want to see dramatic results over time.”

‘High Impact’ Programs

Viewed from the local level, the infusion of new money still seems small in comparison with the needs of the schools.

Newark, for example, will receive approximately $54 million extra next year. But that is not as much as it seems, Mr. Smith maintained, particularly since the system is saddled with an aging stock of school facilities that would cost an estimated $600 million to bring up to “suburban standards.”

Even so, Newark does not plan to use any of its new money to upgrade facilities. Instead, the money will be channeled into “high impact” programs aimed at aiding students immediately.

One such program is Redirection High School in Newark, an alternative school for dropouts and would-be dropouts that has been notably successful at helping at-risk students.

Combining a strong counseling program, low student-teacher ratios, and self-paced learning, Redirection High School has so far graduated 56 students, all of whom are either in college or employed, and none of whom would have graduated without special attention, said Evelyn Lewis, the school’s head administrator.

The three-year-old school currently has a lengthy waiting list for students, Ms. Lewis noted. “We’ve gotten a reputation we’re not sure we want--that we can save just about everybody that needs it,” she observed.

Newark wants to duplicate Redirection’s results in other parts of the city, following Mr. Ellis’ decree that no new programs should be started that have not already been proven effective, Mr. Smith said.

The district plans to open new computer labs and put math specialists into its 82 schools. Mr. Smith said the district also wants to put back programs like art and music that have fallen to past budget crunches.

“We have devastated urban education by cutting programs where students get to use their hands and brains to apply their learning,” he said. “Now we want those back.”

Instead of using their money for upgrading their buildings, Newark officials are pinning their hopes on a bill before the legislature that would float a $600-million bond to cover school construction and renovation.

Under the plan, school systems proving financial need could apply for up to $60 million to cover 90 percent of the cost of a project. Despite the legislature’s anti-spending mood, Mr. Corcoran predicted the measure would be approved.

No ‘Cookie Cutter’

Newark’s proposals are the sort that Mr. Ellis hopes other urban districts will adopt as well. His wish list includes prekindergarten and other early-intervention programs, extended school days and years, core-competency tests for elementary curricula, reduced class sizes and student-teacher ratios, peer-tutoring and community-service programs, alternative education for high-risk students, and parent-involvement programs.

“The focus will be on bottom-line results--lower dropout rates, higher attendance, less drug abuse, less vandalism, fewer teenage pregnancies,” Mr. Ellis said.

He stressed, however, that he did not want a “cookie-cutter approach” to reform. “We want the district to own their programs,” he said.

Ronald Larkin, the New Brunswick superintendent, said he would like his district’s extra money to be channeled into a math program it is currently running along with Rutgers University and Middlesex County. He also wants to put back art and music programs and hire guidance counselors for elementary schools and science specialists.

Like Newark, New Brunswick has serious physical-plant shortcomings, Mr. Larkin said, and the district’s additional $4 million is not going to be sufficient. He said he would like to take Mr. Ellis’s advice on a full-day kindergarten, but does not have the space.

“We could use the money to hire a staff, but because of our facilities, it would do no good,” he said. “We’re not overcrowded, but we’re right at the max in all our schools.”

Another Middlesex County special-needs district, Perth-Amboy, is eyeing an expansion of preschool programs. The district’s all-day kindergarten is overcrowded and badly needs aides, according to Superintendent Frank Sinatra.

Mr. Sinatra said Perth-Amboy would use its extra $14 million promised for elementary-school guidance counselors, a school-building addition, computer labs in all 10 schools, and a reduction in the student-teacher ratio from 25-to-1 to 17- or 18-to-1.

“This district should be able to take off like a rocket,” he said.

Despite the new funds, the victors in Abbott v. Burke remain critical of the state’s efforts. Marilyn J. Morheuser, director of the Education Law Center in Newark and the plaintiffs’ chief lawyer, said the current legislation falls far short of satisfying the court’s equity demands. She threatened to bring the issue back into court if amendments are not made to insure funding parity.

While Perth-Amboy heads for the stars, most other districts will be hard-pressed to get off the ground, Ms. Morheuser said.

Urban districts are not really getting a good deal under the Quality Education Act, she argued, adding that the state is moving too slowly in addressing the funding inequities struck down by the court.

The court ordered the state to reach parity in per-pupil funding within five years, Ms. Morheuser said. The gap between the 30 urban districts and the richest 108 systems cited by the court is projected to be more than $1,500 per pupil in 1991-92, according to Steve Block, the law center’s education consultant.

The poorest district, Pemberton Township, will spend about $6,331 per pupil, he noted, while Princeton will spend $11,580.

That gap is almost certainly insurmountable in five years, Ms. Morheuser said, because the law stipulates that no district’s total budget can increase more than 30 percent a year. She said she plans this fall to ask lawmakers for legislation guaranteeing parity.

She also said that the current legislation shifts too heavy a burden on the poor districts to fund their own recovery, pointing out that Newark taxpayers face a 7 percent property-tax hike to finance their district’s $6.2-million contribution to the funding increases.

Ms. Morheuser argued that the qea’s funding formula violates the court’s mandate that reforms cannot be funded by the urban districts themselves.

Mr. Ellis said districts receiving increased state support could use some funds for tax relief. But he admitted that the poorest districts probably will have to devote all their money to students.

If parity cannot be reached in five years, Mr. Ellis promised, the state will consider other funding paths.

“I don’t think any state has made the commitment to urban education that New Jersey has,” he said. “One New Jersey, quality for all, equity for all. That’s the motto we’ve been following.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 10, 1990 edition of Education Week as New Jersey Educators Seek Effective Use Of Urban Schools’ Huge Funding Increases