High Court in N.J. Ends Funding Suit

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New Jersey's highest court last week upheld Gov. Christine Todd Whitman's plan for reforming and refurbishing the state's urban school systems, a landmark ruling that many hoped would amount to a peace treaty in the state's nearly 30-year war over school funding.

In a unanimous decision, the New Jersey Supreme Court largely endorsed the governor's plan for meeting the cities' instructional and facilities needs through implementation of "whole-school reform," expanded preschool programs, and a sweeping plan for school construction.

The justices also affirmed earlier rulings that ordered the state to assure that the 28 urban districts involved in the court case spend as much per pupil as the state's highest-spending suburbs.

In addition, they said they expected the city districts, because of their greater needs, to require an as-yet-undetermined amount of funding above the average in wealthy districts. But they concluded that the required spending level should not be set by the court, but instead be driven by specific needs identified by individual districts and demonstrated to the state.

By embracing much of the Republican governor's plan, the supreme court rejected many of the recommendations made by a lower-court judge in January for a broader, costlier program. Chief among them was that the state provide full-day preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds in the 28 districts at an estimated cost of $312 million annually. ("N.J. Judge Urges Vast Aid Boost for Urban Schools," Jan. 28 1998.)

Instead, the high court directed the state to create a half-day program for those age levels--less than what the lower court called for but more than the half-day program for 4-year-olds that the Whitman administration had proposed. It also ordered the state to provide full-day kindergarten for all children in the affected districts by September 1999.

New Era Seen

Members of the Whitman administration hailed the May 21 ruling, as did leaders of the GOP-dominated legislature.

"The court has finally recognized the importance of programs over funding in educating children," said Jayne O'Connor, a spokeswoman for the governor. "We consider this a new era in education in New Jersey."

The advocates for funding equity who have battled the state since 1970 in two successive lawsuits also said they found much to like in the ruling. The head of the Newark-based Education Law Center, which spearheaded the funding suit known as Abbott v. Burke, said the ruling heralded the start of an unparalleled effort to improve urban schools.

"We are about to launch one of the most massive experiments in reforming urban education anywhere in the country," said David G. Sciarra, the center's executive director.

Mr. Sciarra also cited the court's requirement of half-day preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds as groundbreaking. "Nowhere in the country is there a requirement for intensive early-childhood education at that level," he said.

The state had argued that it could not be required to provide preschool because the state constitution specifically requires public education only for children ages 5 through 18. But the justices pointed to the state's 1996 school funding law, which created a category of state funding for preschool and full-day kindergarten, as all the legal justification they needed.

Extra Programs Expected

A year ago, as part of an order requiring the state to send nearly $250 million more into the 28 districts, the high court directed the state to identify the programs and services those systems needed. It ordered a similar assessment of the districts' facilities needs.

The state and the law center then presented competing visions of those needs to state Judge Michael Patrick King. In his January ruling in the case, Judge King embraced the law center's position that New Jersey should be required to provide an array of supplemental programs to urban schools. Besides preschool, those included summer school, after-school tutoring, and an array of social services available in all middle and high schools.

Last week's decision instead puts the onus on local districts to show the need for such programs. But it also mandates that Commissioner of Education Leo F. Klagholz establish procedures for weighing and responding to districts' requests for supplemental programs and spending.

The court said it expected such programs to be required in the areas of technology, school-to-work, alternative education, and accountability.

Ms. O'Connor, the governor's spokeswoman, said the ruling would allow programmatic needs to drive spending, instead of the other way around. At earlier stages of the court fight, the administration unsuccessfully sought to persuade the court to abandon dollar-for-dollar spending parity as a measure of whether the state was meeting its obligations to urban schools.

"This decision gives us the ability to do what we've been hoping to do all along: identify needs and match them with programs, rather than come up with the dollars first and then figure out how to spend them," Ms. O'Connor said.

But Mr. Sciarra called those remarks "disingenuous" because state officials had repeatedly failed to fully assess the needs of the urban districts even when ordered to do so by the court.

'Success for All' Embraced

In the area of whole-school reform, the high court endorsed the administration's plan to require the roughly 320 affected elementary schools to adopt programs to overhaul their entire instructional and managerial approaches.

The presumption is that the schools adopt a reform model developed by researchers at Johns Hopkins University known as Success for All, which emphasizes early literacy. Schools will be allowed to use other models, however, if they can make a persuasive case to the state for doing so.

The justices said that while they expected the reforms "to be undertaken and pursued vigorously and in good faith," they foresaw that legal disputes over their implementation would inevitably arise.

Nonetheless, they said that those cases should be handled through normal administrative channels and that they were relinquishing control of the case. While the Abbott suit dates to 1981, its predecessor case, known as Robinson v. Cahill was filed in 1970.

"This decision should be the last major judicial involvement in the long and tortuous history of the state's extraordinary effort to bring a thorough and efficient education to the children in its poorest school districts," Judge Alan B. Handler wrote for the court.

But while the justices said the worst of the legal battles should be over, they suggested that the effort to improve urban schooling had a long road ahead.

"We must reach the point where it is possible to say with confidence that the most disadvantaged schoolchildren in the state will not be left out or left behind," the ruling says. "Success for all will come only when the roots of the educational system--the local schools and districts, the teachers, the administrators, the parents, and the children themselves--embrace the educational opportunity encompassed by these reforms."

Vol. 17, Issue 37, Pages 1, 15

Published in Print: May 27, 1998, as High Court in N.J. Ends Funding Suit
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