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Corzine's school-aid overhaul approved

TRENTON - Over the objections of big-city Democrats and suburban Republicans, Gov. Corzine's sweeping overhaul of how New Jersey pays for public education passed the Legislature last night.

TRENTON - Over the objections of big-city Democrats and suburban Republicans, Gov. Corzine's sweeping overhaul of how New Jersey pays for public education passed the Legislature last night.

Corzine and his allies in the Legislature say the measure would more fairly distribute nearly $8 billion in annual state education aid.

The bill would hike this year's state education funding by 7 percent. Some districts would see an increase of as much as 20 percent, and all would get at least a 2 percent increase.

But urban lawmakers bitterly predicted the bill would harm 31 disadvantaged school districts, including those in Camden, Newark and others that have received tens of millions in extra school aid in recent years.

Republicans, meanwhile, criticized a part of the law that would for the first time allocate a big chunk of state special-education aid based on the relative wealth of communities.

As a result, affluent schools would get less per handicapped student, under the theory that local taxpayers can more easily pick up that cost.

As Corzine pushed to get the bill through yesterday on the last day of the lame-duck legislative sessions, its passage became a cliff-hanger in the Senate.

There, Democratic leaders initially could only muster 20 "yes" votes - one short of a majority - after the chamber's six African American senators, all Democrats, linked up with Republicans to vote against the measure.

In a tableau that looked like a scene out of a Norman Rockwell painting of democracy in action, Democratic and Republican leaders stood in the well the Senate jawboning selected legislators.

After Democratic Senate President Richard Codey (D., Essex) held open the vote tally for three hours, three Republicans switched their votes to "yes" last night, including Sen. Martha W. Bark, a Republican from Burlington County.

State Sen. Raymond Lesniak, a North Jersey Democrat who helped cut the deal with the three, said they were won over after Corzine agreed to add up to $50 million in extra funding for special education. Bark also said the deal involved the additional special-education money.

The governor has acknowledged his new funding formula will need approval from the state Supreme Court, but has predicted it will pass judicial muster.

The legislation throws out the current system, under which the 31 districts, including Camden, Gloucester City, Burlington City and other districts in South Jersey and across the state, have received millions in extra funding. Instead, those school systems, known as the Abbott districts, will have to compete with all other districts in the state for funding.

Corzine says the 31 districts will still end up with extra money. He said they will still benefit because his formula pumps additional money to every student facing unusual hardships, such as those who are poor or struggling to learn English.

For years, the Abbott districts have been funded under a system in which the state guarantees that their per-pupil spending equals that in the state's richest tier of suburban school districts.

The state was forced to do this by the state Supreme Court. The systems are called Abbott districts from the name of the lawsuit that led to the funding ruling.

Corzine has noted that half of the low-income students in New Jersey live outside the 31 Abbott districts.

"The current method leaves too many children out of luck simply because they live in the wrong zip code," Corzine has said.

During the Senate debate, State Sen. Wayne R. Bryant, a Democrat whose district includes Camden, said the notion of helping low-income youngsters everywhere was appealing.

"The rhetoric is very, very good," Bryant said.

But, Bryant said, in reality, the new formula would leave urban schools financially shortchanged. "This will drastically take us back," said Bryant.

His remarks were his last on the floor of the Senate. Bryant, who is awaiting trial on corruption charges, did not seek reelection last year.

State Sen. Ronald Rice, a Democrat whose district includes Newark, said the bill would reverse New Jersey's long effort to improve education in urban schools.

Moreover, he faulted his fellow Democrats for pushing the bill through the lame-duck session.

"There are many unanswered questions and much confusion" about the proposal, Rice said. "It's a bad bill."

In the Assembly, the measure passed with 41 votes, the narrowest possible majority in the 80-seat chamber.

In all, 36 Democrats and five Republicans in the Assembly voted for the legislation. The "no" votes came from 22 Republicans and 14 Democrats - with, as in the Senate, many urban members bucking their leadership to vote against the proposal.

Corzine has said his formula would, in particular, help working-class districts that have not seen aid windfalls in recent years, even though they are geographically near some of the Abbott districts.

One winner would be the Burlington Township schools, which would receive a 20 percent increase.

Michael Gersie, the district's assistant superintendent for business, said the money was sorely needed.

"Without the increase, we're going to have substantial cuts in programs" in the next school year, he said.