Law & Courts

Though N.J. Funding Formula Upheld, Abbott Intact

By Catherine Gewertz — June 09, 2009 4 min read
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Recently blessed by the state’s high court, New Jersey’s new school funding formula revolutionizes the way education is financed in the Garden State. But it does not end the 28-year-old lawsuit that helped bring it about.

In a unanimous ruling on May 28, the New Jersey Supreme Court said the funding formula approved by the legislature in January 2008 was constitutional, and found that as a result, 31 poor urban school districts no longer were entitled to special funding equal to what the state’s wealthiest districts spend.

Instead, state aid for all 616 school districts will be calculated with the same formula, which establishes a per-student “base” and assigns “weights”—additional dollars—for children and districts according to need.

Revamping the state’s school funding system had been a top priority of Democratic Gov. Jon S. Corzine since he took office in 2006. The governor, who had likened the old method to funding children by zip code, hailed the high court ruling in a statement, saying that it “brings to a conclusion decades of conflict and litigation that many thought would never end.”

But as a legal matter, Abbott v. Burke, the 1981 lawsuit that sparked this and several earlier funding formulas, remains open.

The state asked the court to declare that the new formula renders unnecessary two important types of remedies mandated earlier in the case: funding levels for the 31 Abbott districts pegged to what the wealthiest districts spend, and “supplemental” funding, for services designed to offset the effects of poverty, such as tutoring.

Mandates Remain

Still intact are other Abbott remedies mandated in 20 decisions over the years, including obligations to repair or build school facilities, and to expand free preschool for needy children. The overarching framework of the case remains, and the high court made it clear that it would use that framework if necessary.

“There should be no doubt that we would require remediation of any deficiencies of a constitutional dimension,” Justice Jaynee LaVecchia wrote. She added, later in the ruling: “The court remains committed to our role in enforcing the constitutional rights of the children of this state should the formula prove ineffective or the required funding not be forthcoming.”

David G. Sciarra, the lead lawyer for the Abbott schoolchildren, said the case is not over “by a long shot.” He noted that the court required the formula to be fully funded for the next few years. If it is not, lawyers can challenge the state’s compliance with the court’s ruling. The justices also ordered that the education department review the formula in three years.

Mr. Sciarra said he and his colleagues are monitoring the way the state distributes its annual $8 billion precollegiate education budget. Their studies already show, he said, that Abbott districts, such as Jersey City, are cutting back because of the funding levels in the new formula, which is in effect for the first time this school year. And he said that the governor’s proposed $29 billion fiscal 2010 budget underfunds the formula by at least $350 million and shortchanges the state’s obligation to expand free preschool.

“Despite the state’s representation that this is Abbott’s demise, it’s far from over,” Mr. Sciarra said.

‘Generous Resources’

Lucille E. Davy, the state’s commissioner of education, disputed Mr. Sciarra’s contention that the new formula would mean less money for any district. She said it guarantees that no district will receive less state aid in the first few years, except in the case of a significant enrollment decline.

“The new formula provides, arguably, the most generous resources in the nation for children at risk,” she said. “It is really difficult for me, given the complexity of the national fiscal crisis, for anyone to look at this glass and see it as anything less than full.”

Advocates for Abbott districts say that by eliminating the option to apply for “supplemental” funding, the formula forces cutbacks. But Ms. Davy said the extra dollars to districts for disadvantaged children should cover those costs.

Charles Ottinger, the superintendent of the 10,000-student Vineland schools, an Abbott district in Southern New Jersey, said his district cut 65 positions and all of its before- and after-school programs this year. The pinch came largely from being unable to request supplemental aid, which has run between $5 million and $8 million annually, he said. Among the positions he cut were social workers, bilingual remedial teachers, and home-school liaisons.

Lynne Strickland, the executive director of the Garden State Coalition of Schools, an advocacy group for middle- and upper-income districts, said the new formula offers a mixed bag for her members.

For “a couple hundred” middle-income districts, it brings relief from the bind of having too meager a tax base to generate much revenue, but getting insufficient state help for their increasing costs, including educating more disadvantaged children.

Most wealthier districts are in line for fewer of the “weights” accompanying disadvantaged students. And because of a recent 4 percent cap on property-tax hikes, they can’t easily rely on that money to cover rising costs such as health benefits, she said.

Nevertheless, she sees tremendous political advantage for schools in the adoption of one uniform funding approach.

“For the first time in recent history, all the districts in the state will be unified in some real common-denominator advocacy,” Ms. Strickland said.

Gary W. Ritter, an associate professor of education policy at the University of Arkansas, said New Jersey’s new formula fits into a national trend in school finance that recognizes that children of poverty require more funding. But the increased investment carries a political risk, he said.

“What happens if that money doesn’t pay off in improved achievement?” he asked. “You wonder if there could be a backlash.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 10, 2009 edition of Education Week as Though N.J. Funding Formula Upheld, Abbott Intact

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