The latest round in the feud over funding New Jersey schools has been good for Pennsauken.
In the first two years since Gov. Corzine overhauled the way state education money is doled out, the blue-collar town bordering Camden has come in line for a nearly $10 million increase in state aid. The support will pay for nine new teachers, hundreds of computers, three new buses, playgrounds, and, among other things, 90 "smart boards" - electronic blackboards.
The added help is an example of how Corzine said his new formula should work: more money heading to needy middle-class districts that for years faced growing enrollments and larger shares of poor students with almost no added help from the state.
But advocates for the 31 historically poor, mostly urban districts that, under a state Supreme Court mandate, have received enhanced aid for years argue their schools will be shortchanged by the new system and still need judicial protection. The two sides will be back before the Supreme Court on Tuesday to argue over Corzine's plan, his attempt to address one of the most complex and divisive issues in recent state history. At stake is $8 billion that helps pay for teachers and materials and affects property taxes in every town in New Jersey.
A ruling in Corzine's favor could wipe out the most significant provisions of the landmark Abbott v. Burke court cases, which began in 1981 and have defined school funding for years. It would also give final court approval to a unified school-aid plan for the first time since 1976. In announcing his formula in late 2007, Corzine said it "gives all of our children in all of our communities the opportunity to succeed. It is balanced, unified, and equitable."
The idea was to eliminate the two-tiered system that sent most state support to the 31 so-called Abbott districts while lawmakers and governors largely froze aid to other schools, like Pennsauken, leaving them to meet needs by raising property taxes, forgoing programs, or doing both.
Corzine's plan aims to help districts that were left behind by funneling more money to schools with high concentrations of "at-risk" students with low incomes or limited English skills. Poorer districts that, according to the formula, spend too little on education get the most help. Less aid goes to wealthier communities and those that spend more than the formula dictates.
To back up the plan, Corzine has added $830 million in formula-based school aid in his latest three budgets.
Lawyers for the Abbott districts, which include Camden, Burlington City, Gloucester City, and Pemberton Township, argue that Corzine's plan, while good for some schools, could unravel years of benefits seen in urban areas. Most Abbott districts, whose spending has soared above the state average, now expect years of flat state funding. Those with dropping enrollments could see aid cuts in 2011. "We think that the formula is unconstitutional . . . as applied to the Abbott districts," said David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, which represents those schools. Sciarra argues that these districts should be able to apply for "supplemental aid" outside the formula to maintain the small classes, tutoring, and after-school programs that came with years of court-ordered funding.
The administration opposes the idea, saying its plan fairly calculates what each district needs. A separate stream of aid would "erode" the system's transparency and equity, the state argues.
The debate first went before the Supreme Court in September, but the justices asked for more detail. Superior Court Judge Peter Doyne held hearings and ruled that the formula was fair, but he also recommended providing a safety net, saying Abbott districts should be able to seek additional aid.
The Supreme Court will have the final say.
"The Corzine administration wants to have a new formula that says, 'Trust us, we'll do the right things for all these kids, and you don't have to stand over us with a judicial order anymore,' " said Deborah Yaffe, a former newspaper reporter who chronicled the state's long-running school-funding fight in her book Other People's Children: The Battle for Justice and Equality in New Jersey's Schools.
The judicial orders of the past steered billions of state dollars to Abbott districts. In Gloucester City, the money has brought preschool, an early-childhood center, and meals for needy students, among other things, Superintendent Paul Spaventa said.
Under the new system, he said, his schools have avoided major cuts, but Sciarra wrote in a court filing that other Abbott districts were trimming teachers, after-school programs, security staff, and more.
Other schools had coped with limited aid for years. As funding flowed to Abbott districts, lawmakers and governors facing tight budgets shut off the taps for the rest of the state's 585 schools. By 2007, Abbott schools received 55 percent of all state aid while educating 23 percent of New Jersey students.
In Pennsauken, a non-Abbott district, the number of low-income students - those receiving free and reduced-price lunches - grew 34 percent from the 1999-2000 school year to 2006-07. State aid lagged, increasing by 8 percent. The district had to put off investments in staff and technology, Superintendent James Chapman said.
Under the new plan, Pennsauken has been one of the biggest beneficiaries.
On a recent morning, Mark Lilley and Melissa Forrester used one of the district's new smart boards to instruct a 10th-grade biology class. On the large flat screen were words - water, rocks, grass, carbon dioxide - that students divided between "living" and "non-living." As the class worked out the answers, Forrester touched the screen to drag the items to the appropriate column. Moments later she pulled up a batch of notes, then a video of microorganisms found in water. The teachers said the equipment reached students on aural, visual, and tactile levels. "They're always engaged. That's the biggest thing," Lilley said.
Not every school has done as well. Suburban Cherry Hill, another district whose aid was frozen for years, expected a much greater infusion of money once the new funding plan took effect but got only a limited boost because the district spends more than the formula deems "adequate." District spokeswoman Susan Bastnagel said Cherry Hill spent less per pupil than the state average.
The caps are aimed at preventing runaway spending, according to state officials.
But facing a tough budget this year, Corzine has extended the limits on aid increases to all schools. No district will get more than a 5 percent bump in state support, including some, such as Pennsauken, that the formula says should receive far more. Roughly 70 percent of schools will see no increase at all. Sciarra said the caps, driven by political and budgetary constraints, showed the need to preserve a court-ordered safety valve for Abbott districts.
Added Yaffe: "The history of this whole issue in New Jersey is not very promising when it comes to the executive and Legislature doing the right things without anyone telling them to. They tend not to."