For 4th Time, Court Rejects N.J. Formula
The New Jersey Supreme Court last week declared the state's school finance system unconstitutional, striking down a law that sought to break ground nationally by linking funding levels to statewide curriculum standards.
For the fourth time since 1973, the high court found that the state has failed to supply its 28 poorest city school districts with enough money to overcome the myriad disadvantages faced by their 285,000 students.
And the court stuck to a method of correcting that problem that Gov. Christine Todd Whitman dearly hoped it would abandon: dollar-for-dollar spending parity between the state's neediest cities and its wealthiest suburbs.
In a 5-1 opinion, the justices ordered the state to ensure by July that each of the 28 poor districts is spending at least as much on regular education as the 120 richest--an average estimated at $8,431 per pupil.
Complying with the order is expected to cost the state up to $250 million on top of the roughly $5 billion it already planned to spend on K-12 education in 1997-98.
"The state has had seven years to comply with a remedy intended to address, albeit partially, a profound deprivation that has continued for at least 25 years," the 72-page opinion states. "The remedy of increased funding for educational improvement in the poor urban districts should not be delayed any further."
Standards Link Questioned
In a small consolation to Gov. Whitman, the justices found the state curriculum standards enacted last year to be an acceptable definition of the "thorough and efficient" education guaranteed by the state constitution.
Noting that "New Jersey appears to be the first state to try to base funding determinations on achievement standards," they also said that the standards-based approach over the long run may offer a better hope of assuring equity than fiscal parity.
The problem, they said, is that the current law's funding levels--which are close to the state's per-pupil spending averages--bear no relationship to the amount actually needed to meet the standards.
Gov. Whitman told reporters last week at a news conference in Trenton that she "couldn't disagree more."
"I'd be a liar if I said I wasn't very disappointed with the court's decision," the Republican governor said. "Clearly, the 27-year effort to get the three branches of government in the state of New Jersey to agree on a funding formula for our schools is going to continue."
David Sciarra, the head of the legal foundation that brought the lawsuit, said the ruling showed that the purported linkage between the standards and the funding levels was "a lie."
"This is a message to those governors around the country that think that by simply adopting standards you can automatically achieve equity," he said. "This says that you've got to make sure that urban districts have resources to meet those standards."
Some of the districts covered by the order, including state-operated Newark and Jersey City, spend well above the $8,181 average in the richest suburbs. But the average in the 28 districts this year was roughly $7,300.
The justices dismissed the notion that spending levels in middle-income districts--currently averaging $7,144 per pupil--were a better yardstick than those in the wealthiest suburbs.
"We reject the state's invitation to turn a blind eye to the most successful districts in the state," they said.
In a strongly worded 30-page dissent, Justice Marie L. Garibaldi argued that "the majority should not rewrite the constitution" by reading into it the guarantee of "equal" education.
Moreover, she noted that spending in the 28 districts now averages almost 90 percent of that in the richest suburbs, thanks to an $850 million increase in state aid to those poor cities since 1990.
"Yet there is scant evidence that the children have received the benefit of those expenditures," she wrote. "The experiment of parity in spending has failed."
Judge Garibaldi said the law should be given a chance to work. "For the first time," she wrote, "the driving force is educational standards, and not the further continuance of a failed scheme."
Extra Programs Required
But the five other participating justices--Chief Justice Deborah T. Poritz did not take part because she had worked on the case as Gov. Whitman's attorney general--did not see things that way.
Beyond parity in regular education spending, the majority ordered state officials to spell out precisely what extra programs and services poor districts need--and then provide them.
The justices said such resources are crucial to offsetting problems including poverty, violence, and family dysfunction.
"If all students are expected to achieve the same goals, educational resources should place them all at the same starting line," Justice Alan B. Handler wrote for the majority.
The current funding law, by contrast, would "perpetuate a two-tiered school system" that would force poor students to do more with less, the ruling said.
The decision directs state officials, principally Commissioner of Education Leo F. Klagholz, to "take affirmative and aggressive action" to ensure the money supplied to urban districts is "put to optimal educational use."
Addressing an area that the court has not emphasized previously, the ruling further requires the state to correct the cities' severe facilities problems.
"No one can expect disadvantaged children to achieve in school buildings that are overcrowded, outmoded, dilapidated, and often unsafe," the ruling states.
The justices sent the case to a lower court to craft a plan by year's end for meeting the cities' program and facilities needs. And it authorized the appointment of a special master to help in that process.
The justices called the coming proceedings a step in the "Herculean reform" needed in urban schools to make sure "every child be given an equal opportunity to meet his or her promise."