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Corzine takes on school aid formula

His plan would largely end the separate status for 31 Abbott districts. Advocates for the poor are skeptical.

Wielding a mighty pair of scissors, Gov. Corzine is preparing to snip the financial link that has tied the state's poorest schools to its wealthiest.

To his critics, the governor is about to cut a lifeline.

But Corzine says he is fixing a flawed and outmoded school funding system - and that schools in low-income areas have nothing to fear.

For 17 years, New Jersey has toiled to implement perhaps the nation's most far-reaching school-financing court edict.

In 1990, the state Supreme Court ordered New Jersey to spend as much per student in the most disadvantaged districts as it spent in the richest tier of schools.

The result has been a financial bonanza in state aid for the Camden district, as well as 30 other mostly urban districts across the Garden State.

They are called Abbott districts, a name taken from the epic lawsuit that won them the money.

Now, Corzine and his fellow Democrats in control of the Legislature are poised to push a new school-funding plan through in the final weeks of the lame-duck legislative session.

The governor's plan would eliminate the special designation of the Abbott districts.

Instead, they would compete with the other 585 districts in the state for a share of the $11 billion in state education funding.

Last week, the governor reiterated that his plan would not harm the Abbott districts. Besides Camden, other Abbott districts in South Jersey are Burlington City, Gloucester City, Pemberton Township, Bridgeton, Vineland, Millville, Salem and Pleasantville.

The Abbott districts receive almost 60 percent of all state school aid, even though they are home to only a quarter of the state's public school children.

Corzine said they would still get extra money because his new funding formula would recognize the needs of systems with high numbers of youngsters in poverty or struggling to learn English.

"Those who advocate for the Abbotts will see these benefits reflected in the formula," Corzine said Friday.

And, Corzine pointed out, the New Jersey Supreme Court will ultimately decide whether his plan is lawful.

The governor also says he wants to fix a central unfairness in the Abbott ruling: Students may be poor but not benefit from extra state funding simply because they happen to live outside one of the 31 Abbott districts.

Under his new formula, Corzine has said, extra educational money would flow to help every low-income child, regardless of where he or she lives. This, his aides have said, would help such districts as Pennsauken in Camden County and Paulsboro in Gloucester County.

Nonetheless, David G. Sciarra, the lawyer who is the leading advocate for the Abbott districts, said Corzine's approach would damage these 31 systems even as they have begun to show significant progress on test scores.

Without an explicit link to the richest suburbs, Sciarra said, state aid to the Abbott schools was bound to decline.

"Once the state is off the hook to do that, they're going down. Guaranteed. It will be slow. It will be a steady downward every year," said Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center.

That is the Newark organization that has gone to court repeatedly to enforce its initial victory in the Abbott case, in which the state's high court ruled that spending in the special-needs districts must equal that of the state's wealthiest 128 districts.

The merits of Corzine's proposal aside, some worry about what would happen if the state runs short of cash and simply abandons his new formula.

"What if there's a budget crisis?" asked author Deborah Yaffe, an expert on New Jersey school finances. "Obviously, if 75 percent of your funding comes from the state, you get whacked a lot harder when the state cuts back."

Her point is more than just theoretical.

After Corzine's predecessor, Jim McGreevey, took office in 2002, the state's budget shortfall forced him to suspend the current education formula.

As a result, until Corzine put through a 6 percent increase last year, state education funding was essentially flat for five years - except in the Abbott districts.

Because the wealthiest districts could more easily raise more money through property taxes, that left middle- and working-class districts out of the money.

Yaffe, author of the just published

Other People's Children: The Battle for Justice and Equality in New Jersey's Schools

, summed it up this way:

"Basically, the Abbott districts have a court guarantee and the rich districts have money. And everyone in between has none of those things."

Without explicit parity with the wealthier districts, Yaffe said, the Abbott districts could be the ones out of luck next time around.

Rutgers University law professor Paul Tractenberg, who chairs the board of the Education Law Center, said pressure was constant to siphon money away from the Abbott system.

"Unless the state is prepared to spend a lot more on education, which is not going to happen, you go where the money is. The money is in the Abbott districts," he said. "You find a way to take it from there, in order to spread it around to the other districts."

Lynne Strickland, executive director of the Garden State Coalition of Schools, a group that speaks on behalf of suburban schools, said it was too early to fully assess Corzine's proposals.

She and others note the governor has yet to flesh out his complicated formula with hard district-by-district figures, which are expected to be released this week.

Still, Strickland said, her group is already concerned about another key part of Corzine's proposal: For the first time, New Jersey would take into account the wealth of districts in giving out state special-education money.

Not normally on the same page as the Education Law Center, both she and the Newark group say they question the need to revamp the formula in the lame-duck session.

They point out that Corzine has said the state will hold funding steady for the next two years, even if the formula were to dictate otherwise.

Given that, they ask, why the rush?

Sciarra, of the Education Law Center, said he hoped to reach out to other groups "to first make sure this formula gets off the fast track."