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New Jersey Court Decision Leaves Lawmakers In Bind

My colleague Catherine Gewertz, who has covered school funding equity issues in New Jersey for years, has written an article about a recent state Supreme Court decision that will add $500 million to New Jersey's school funding obligations.

In its 3-2 decision, the state's high court ordered New Jersey to provide $500 million more to those urban districts in the 2011-12 school year in order to fully fund its 2008 school finance formula. While scolding the state for "reneging" on its promise to fully fund the formula, the court declined to boost the amount to $1 billion in order to include 174 other districts that had been underfunded, saying that it could grant relief only to the 31 districts whose schoolchildren were plaintiffs in the case.

The verdict was the latest in a 30-year-old school funding case in the state called Abbott v. Burke. So-called "Abbott districts" are given more money in order to pay for the same education program that wealthier districts can provide. When the verdict came down, Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, first indicated he might not comply, but he soon changed his tune. Now, he's saying that it will be the job of the Democratic-controlled state legislature to reallocate the funds, but he will veto any budget that includes a tax increase.

The legislature has until June 30 to create an acceptable budget. And left in the lurch, say some school board officials, are districts that are not wealthy, but are also not so poor that they merit special assistance from the state.

Louis DeLisio, the superintendent of the Fairview district, which serves 1,150 K-8 students in a blue-collar community in central New Jersey, said he's tired of the funding roller coaster. In 2009, when SFRA was fully funded in its first year, the district got a $1 million boost in aid, only to lose nearly all of it the following year, forcing Mr. DeLisio to lay off five of his 90 teachers and raise class sizes at three of his four schools.

It's not right that Abbott districts get more money simply because of urban poverty, when his district's small-town poverty is just as severe, he said.

"It's frustrating," Mr. DeLisio said. "We're dealing with Abbott-district circumstances without the Abbott funding."

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