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Hoboken might be cut but as a result of a State Supreme Court directive Jersey City might increase.
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School funding battle won't be pretty
Thursday, August 03, 2006

They are not exactly endangered species, but the number of Abbott school districts is likely to be reduced from 31 once New Jersey establishes a new public school aid formula.

However, resolving competing interests among urban, suburban and rural school districts is one of the most vexing issues before the Legislature.

The Senate Education Committee - headed by Shirley Turner, D-Mercer - and the Assembly Education Committee, led by Craig A. Stanley, D-Essex - will hold public hearings this month to develop a new school aid formula.

Changing school funding - $10.4 billion is at stake - is only part of the issue facing the lawmakers and Gov. Jon S. Corzine.

Corzine summoned legislators into special session on July 28 to talk about how to implement long-term property tax relief.

Along with pension reform and consolidation of services at the municipal and school district levels, Democratic-controlled committees will look for budget cuts.

Their recommendations, expected this fall, will be translated into legislation, which will require Corzine's signature.

Former Education Commissioner William Librera has suggested the Abbott districts be sharply reduced, and Hoboken is always among those mentioned.

That could still leave Jersey City, Harrison, West New York and Union City among the special needs districts that receive increased funding as a result of a State Supreme Court directive.

The Abbott districts now share about $4 billion.

Turner and Stanley are in position to protect aid for urban districts, even if Abbott designations are changed. They'll have company with Hudson County legislators and other urbanites in working to avoid adverse reductions.

Republicans are united against the Abbott-dominated aid formula and some rural and suburban Democrats privately say they feel the same way.

Unless some bipartisan school accord is reached, the funding debate could provoke bitter partisanship.

Just how partisan aid distribution can become was illustrated by Assembly Republicans, who denounced "Abbott-border district aid" in the amount of $21,903,000 as "nothing but pure political consideration" for Bayonne, North Bergen, Weehawken, Kearny, Clifton and Hillside.

Posted on: 2006/8/3 11:31
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Budget cuts must spare the Abbott districts
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Budget cuts must spare the Abbott districts
Home News Tribune Online 04/11/06
The steep cost of supporting New Jersey's poorest schools, its so-called Abbott Districts, has been a thorn in the side of state budget-makers for a decade.

Christie Whitman once declared that the state's generosity toward its Abbott schools had reached its limit and that money was not the sole criteria for determining quality education. Her successor, James E. McGreevey, advanced that position one step further by managing to get those 31 districts to agree to a one-year freeze in state aid. Today, Jon S. Corzine is the latest chief executive to take on the fight. Corzine also wants to hold steady on financial support from Trenton due the Abbotts as one means of helping balance an upcoming state budget that is desperately short of cash.

The question, of course, is whether the governors are motivated by anything other than money. Corzine claims, as both Whitman and McGreevey did, that reforms ordered by the state Supreme Court are working better in some schools than in others, and he's no doubt right.

"While gains in achievement in Abbott districts are evident, and the achievement gap is decreasing, collectively Abbott districts are still lagging behind the state average passing rates on these assessments," his administration's application notes. But of course they are.

It ought to be obvious to anyone that gains in achievement not only take time, but by nature they take place unevenly; the same can just as easily be said of wealthy suburban school districts. More to the point, the urban districts in question started the race from way behind.

"The data is clear. These are very high-poverty districts that have been neglected for 50 years," says David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center. "And the last three or four years that we have been really working hard, there is substantial evidence that the state's investment is paying off for these kids."

Yes, the state Department of Education ought to have some flexibility in deciding how to spend money in school districts. What works for one is not guaranteed to work for another. And, as is the case with all massive bureaucracies, there is undoubtedly some waste and some misuse of funds in some of the 31 districts.

Yet there is little doubt that trying to eradicate, or at least lessen, the corrosive effects of extreme poverty on children's achievement levels takes money, lots of money. And it's a bit presumptuous of the state whenever it claims that money isn't the problem, when it's so obvious that money is so much of the problem. Reform is never immediate, but the large doses of aid are helping.

Corzine, to his credit, is right on one important point, and Sciarra agrees: the need to arrive at a new formula for more equitably funding schools. For now, however, it is wiser to leave Abbott funding and its prescribed annual increases intact, despite the attractiveness for many of holding to past levels of support in a tight budget year.

Kudos to the governor as well for suggesting that more stringent controls be imposed on spending, including the hiring of outside auditors to help the education department review annual budgets in select Abbott districts, starting with Newark, Camden, Jersey City and Paterson.

If vast sums of money are to be invested, the least New Jersey can do is ensure those tax dollars are spent prudently, with student performance the chief goal. No one can say that's often enough been the case.

Posted on: 2006/4/11 10:11
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