Law & Courts

N.J. Panel Recommends Expanding Number of ‘Special Needs’ Districts

By Catherine Gewertz — June 21, 2005 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.”

Related Tags:

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Data Webinar
Working Smarter, Not Harder with Data
There is a new paradigm shift in K-12 education. Technology and data have leapt forward, advancing in ways that allow educators to better support students while also maximizing their most precious resource – time. The
Content provided by PowerSchool
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
Deepen the Reach and Impact of Your Leadership
This webinar offers new and veteran leaders a unique opportunity to listen and interact with four of the most influential educational thinkers in North America. With their expert insights, you will learn the key elements
Content provided by Solution Tree
Science K-12 Essentials Forum Teaching Science Today: Challenges and Solutions
Join this event which will tackle handling controversy in the classroom, and making science education relevant for all students.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Law & Courts Supreme Court to Hear Case of Coach Who Prayed After Games in Defiance of School District
The U.S. Supreme Court will consider whether school districts may prohibit private religious expression by public school employees.
4 min read
Former Bremerton High School assistant football coach Joe Kennedy is in a conflict with the Bremerton, 
Wash., school district over his silent prayer after games.
Former Bremerton High School assistant football coach Joseph A. Kennedy stands at on the 50-yard line at Bremerton Memorial Stadium. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal over his dismissal for praying after football games.
Larry Steagall/Kitsap Sun via AP
Law & Courts Supreme Court Blocks Biden Vaccine Mandate Applying to Schools in Much of the Country
The justices ruled 6-3 to stay an Occupational Health and Safety Administration rule that covered schools in 26 states and two territories.
4 min read
Members of the Supreme Court pose for a group photo last April.
The U.S. Supreme Court blocked a federal vaccine mandate for large employers, including school districts in about half the states.
Erin Schaff/The New York Times via AP
Law & Courts Students Lose Appeal on Right to Civics Education, But Win Praise From Judges Anyway
A federal appellate court panel commended Rhode Island students for the novel effort, but said Supreme Court precedent stood in the way.
3 min read
Scales of justice and Gavel on wooden table and Lawyer or Judge working with agreement in Courtroom, Justice and Law concept.
Pattanaphong Khuankaew/iStock
Law & Courts High Court Appears Skeptical of Vaccine Mandate Covering Schools in Over Half the States
The Biden administration's OSHA rule applies to private employers with 100 or more workers, as well as school districts in 26 states.
4 min read
The Supreme Court shown Friday, Jan. 7, 2022, in Washington. The Supreme Court is taking up two major Biden administration efforts to bump up the nation's vaccination rate against COVID-19 at a time of spiking coronavirus cases because of the omicron variant.
The U.S. Supreme Court is weighing two Biden administration efforts to bump up the nation's vaccination rate against COVID-19.
Evan Vucci/AP