Thursday, December 20, 2007

Schools - Courier - Davy: Funding plan will fix Abbot flaws

Published in the Courier News, Monday, December 17, 2007

Corzine's education chief:
School-funding plan will fix Abbott flaws


A week after Gov. Jon S. Corzine unveiled his long-awaited school funding formula, the push is on to win legislative and court approval, and to convince the public that the plan is the right way to secure equity in the state's education spending.

Education Commissioner Lucille Davy met with the Courier News editorial board Friday to discuss the plan. She said the new formula will replace the Abbott district system and base its funding on the current demographics of each individual district.

"There were some Band-Aid patches that we had done to address these issues, but this is the first time I think a formula looks at this (demographic changes)," she said.

The program wouldn't negatively impact any district's state aid right away. A "hold harmless" provision would ensure that no district would lose money during the first three years of the plan, and every district would see at least a 2 percent rise in state aid next year.

But over time, the plan would correct what many say is an inequity in the current funding structure. That structure was established by the state Supreme Court in its 1997 Abbott v. Burke decision.

In that case, the court ordered the state to assure that per-pupil expenditures in the state's poorest school districts were equivalent to the average per-pupil expenditures in the state's wealthiest districts.

Those poorer districts, dubbed Abbott districts, now number 31, including Plainfield in Central Jersey.

Too far in one direction

But while the ruling was designed to instill equity, Davy said it has pushed the system of state aid too far in favor of Abbott districts.

"Under the current system," Davy said. "Abbott districts come in and tell us what they want."

She said increases to the state's education budget often are absorbed mostly or solely by the Abbott districts, leaving non-Abbotts to pay higher and higher taxes.

"A lot of communities have had to bear a larger and larger share of the burden through property taxes," Davy said.

Further, Davy said, changing demographics have meant that Abbott districts aren't always the most in need anymore.

Today, Davies said, "half of the free and reduced lunch students live outside of the Abbott boundaries."

Children from families with incomes at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty level are eligible for free school lunches. Children from families making up to 185 percent of the federal poverty level are eligible for reduced-price lunches.

The new funding formula would be calculated each year, allowing the state to account for demographic shifts. The plan is based on "adequacy budgets," a term that aims to quantify how much money it takes to educate a pupil to meet state standards. The base amount for an elementary student is $9,649. Middle-school students require about $400 more, and the base amount for a high-school student is $11,289.

Those per-pupil numbers are adjusted for each at-risk (students eligible for free and reduced lunch), special education or non-English proficient student.

The formula also includes adjustments based on income and poverty values within the district, plus incentives for districts that have full-day kindergarten and more funding for special-education students whose education costs exceed certain limits.

In addition to its "hold harmless" provision, the department also would cap the rate at which the districts that would benefit from the new formula will receive their increases. For districts currently spending below their adequacy budgets, the annual increase in state aid is 20 percent. For districts currently spending above the adequacy cap, the increase is capped at 10 percent annually.

All told, the plan would add about $530 million to the state's 2009 budget, not counting benefits payments the state pays on behalf of the districts.

Getting it passed

Corzine and Davy hope the new formula is in place by the next school year, but in order for that to happen, the Legislature must pass it quickly, and the state Supreme Court will have to agree that it complies with the goals of the Abbott v. Burke decision.

Davy said she's optimistic.

"Not only is the governor fully behind it and fully supportive, but the Legislature, a majority of the Legislature, also understands this is a good formula," she said.

Davy said the general public has been generally warm to the proposal.

"I would say it's been relatively positive," she said. "There are always going to be people who say no matter what you do it's not enough. But the state's resources aren't limited."

In recognition of that fact, Davy said, the funding formula includes an emphasis on accountability.

Davy points to the Legislature's recent strengthening of the county superintendent role, and to the Department of Education's new performance evaluation guidelines, known as the New Jersey Quality Single Accountability Continuum.

NJQSAC, as its known, grants the commissioner more authority to intervene when a district is under-performing and to set the district on a plan for improvement.

The Legislature could also play a role in deciding how districts that benefit from the new formula will deal with the excess money. Davy said that ideally, the extra cash would mean tax breaks for residents, as opposed to unnecessary excess programs. But she said that either way, the money will be back in taxpayers' hands.

"But if the taxpayers are willing to pay for all the extras, then that's a different issue," she said.

Jared Kaltwasser can be reached at (908) 707-3137 or

Online story here. Archived here.

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Plainfield resident since 1983. Retired as the city's Public Information Officer in 2006; prior to that Community Programs Coordinator for the Plainfield Public Library. Founding member and past president of: Faith, Bricks & Mortar; Residents Supporting Victorian Plainfield; and PCO (the outreach nonprofit of Grace Episcopal Church). Supporter of the Library, Symphony and Historic Society as well as other community groups, and active in Democratic politics.