June 1, 2009: Is new school funding formula "thorough and efficient"?

Last week the New Jersey Supreme Court issued a decision upholding a sweeping new school funding formula that no longer focuses aid on New Jersey’s poorest communities. School aid will now be linked to the number of enrolled students, with extra funds going to districts with large numbers of poor or special needs students. The formula also makes adjustments for wealthier districts deemed better able to pay a bigger share of educating their children.

Approved by the Legislature and signed into law by Governor Corzine in 2008, the School Funding Reform Act (SFRA) will establish an adequacy budget for each district based on childrens’ needs, and determine a local fair share for each municipality based on assessments of income and property values. It freezes the amount of money allotted to New Jersey’s 31 Abbott districts, but ensures those communities receive at least as much aid as before unless their enrollment drops by 5 percent.

New Jersey has a constitutional obligation to provide a “thorough and efficient” education to all students. Since the first Abbott ruling in 1985 (mandating that children in poor areas have an education equal to that of students in the state’s wealthiest districts) there have been decades of legal battles over school funding. The court repeatedly ordered the state to spend more on Abbott districts, where many at-risk students live.

According to the Education Law Center, SFRA will cause significant cutbacks in essential staff, programs and services in Abbott districts. Their analysis showed an 18.3 percent funding disparity between wealthy suburban districts and poor mostly urban districts from the 2008-2009 to 2009-2010 school years. If the gap continues, urban districts will be forced to cut those programs and staff needed to raise achievement.

By the court’s directive, SFRA will remain constitutional only if the state follows through on providing all children the resources mandated by the funding law. In addition, the formula must be reviewed for fairness in three years.

New Jersey’s public school system is one of the most segregated by student poverty and race in the nation. While the decision undoes prior Abbott remedies, it remains to be seen if SFRA will further the quest for educational equity for all New Jersey’s children.