In a decision designed to spark a transformation of New Jersey’s school finance formula, the state board of education concluded last week that poor rural districts have been shortchanged in a state known nationally as a leader for providing billions of dollars in extra aid and programs to its poor urban districts.
The 11-0 decision by the New Jersey state board on Jan. 5 came in an 8-year-old bid by a group of small, rural districts to be classified as “special needs” districts like the 31 urban systems that get extra aid as a result of the long-running Abbott v. Burke court case there.
An administrative-law judge in 2002 found that five of the 17 districts should get the designation, but the commissioner of education in 2003 permitted only one to do so. Eight of the remaining districts appealed to the state board of education.
In its decision, the state panel went beyond the question of which districts should get special-needs status, saying the disparity in funding levels only illustrated the need for an entirely new approach. The state must fashion a funding system that is founded not just on giving districts enough money, but ensuring a quality education as guaranteed by the state constitution, the board said.
“We believe the time has come to re-examine our entire educational system and the premises upon which it rests,” the board said in its 72-page decision. “… We must take responsibility for redefining the meaning of a thorough and efficient education in educational rather than financial terms.”
The board directed acting Commissioner of Education Lucille E. Davy to develop by Feb. 1 a design for an assessment that would identify the “unique educational needs” of the 17 original plaintiff districts in the case, known as Bacon v. New Jersey. It also ordered her to report to the board by March 1 on the educational components necessary to a good education in the Garden State’s 600-plus districts.
New Jersey Department of Education officials declined to comment on the ruling. Either side may appeal the decision to the appellate division of superior court.
A New Approach?
Frederick A. Jacob, the lawyer who is representing the rural districts, welcomed the ruling. He said it marked the first case in the nation in which rural and older, struggling suburban districts have been recognized as needing special funding.
“The state board is really sending a message,” he said. “It’s impossible for districts as poor as ours to provide a thorough and efficient education without more state funding.”
Arnold Hyndman, the president of the state board, said the Bacon case provides the catalyst for a new effort to build a fair way of financing schools. Now it’s up to the commissioner and the legislature to follow through, he said.
“It’s time for us to go in a new direction, to stop functioning based on distinctions between urban, rural and suburban,” Mr. Hyndman said. “We need to define an education based on its essential components.”
David G. Sciarra, the lead lawyer in the Abbott case, who also filed friend-of-the-court briefs in Bacon, said the students in the rural districts deserve right away the kind of aid the Abbott districts get.
The delay of a needs assessment is unnecessary, he argued, because the New Jersey Supreme Court in Abbott already defined the key elements needed in poor districts: universal preschool, school construction money, and funding levels equal to the average spent in the state’s highest-wealth districts.
Mr. Sciarra said he would watch carefully to make sure the attempts at remedies in the rural districts did not undermine the help given to the urban districts.
Some middle-wealth districts in New Jersey are aggrieved that they get no state help as the state’s share of funding has decreased along with their tax bases. A statewide system of addressing such disparities is long overdue, said David H. Coates, a lawyer who represented a group of such districts in an unsuccessful attempt to equalize funding.
“In our kinds of districts, people are ticked,” he said.