Abbott ruling troubling for MCVSD: Low-income districts set to receive more funding


By BRIAN MURPHY

Managing Editor

On the balmy Tuesday morning of May 24, the students of Asbury Park High School walked past the sun-drenched lawn and verdant foliage and entered their school to begin another day. At the time, an Asbury Park education cost $24,306 per year, according to state figures on per-pupil spending.

That is nearly $8,000 more than the cost of schooling a student here at CHS, according to statistics from the N.J. Department of Education. Yet, the Supreme Court, in its latest ruling two weeks ago, said it is still not enough.

The court ordered the state to contribute $500 million more to low-income school districts to improve the chances of  students receiving the “thorough and efficient education” that they are guaranteed under the state Constitution.

Associate Justice Jaynee LaVecchia delivered the latest ruling in the case of Abbott v. Burke XXI. It was the 21st installment of a case first brought to court in 1985. It established that students in low-income areas were not receiving an education on par with state constitutional standards. The court classified 31 school districts statewide as the so-called Abbott districts. They receive substantial extra funding from the state in addition to their local funding.

Some officials are troubled by the newest ruling. They told The Inkblot that all school districts are suffering from state funding cuts, so all should share in any additional funding. They say they’re afraid that meeting the new order from the courts will mean even less money for programs in non-Abbott school districts.

State Sen. Sean Kean (R-11), who represents three Abbott districts in addition to the wealthy sections of Monmouth County, said the court decision is flawed.

“It’s not fair. Every year the non-Abbotts get shortchanged. It makes it harder for those families to survive because their school taxes keep going up, and costs keep going up every year and we are cutting the funding that is going to the 500-plus non-Abbott districts.”

The 400-plus students at Asbury Park High School were sitting in their third period class, 47 miles to the east in May 24 while the verdict was delivered.

By this time next year, each student in Asbury Park will be receiving the “thorough and efficient” education that they are entitled to, according to the court’s decision.

Goals of Abbott supporters

The Abbott case was filed by the Educational Law Center, an organization that advocates for equal education in public schools. The Abbott case was the latest development in the center’s ongoing battle to provide better education for students in low-income areas of the state, through increases in school funding.

“The 2011 state budget did not provide full funding for the state’s school funding formula that covers all schools. Instead, state aid to schools was cut significantly,” said Sharon Krengel, policy coordinator at the Education Law Center, in an interview last week with The Inkblot.

“In May 2009, the New Jersey Supreme Court issued a decision stating that the School Funding Reform Act was constitutional, but only if it was fully funded,” she said. Her organization “went back to the Supreme Court to argue that the state had broken its constitutional obligation to fund the formula.”

On May 24, the Supreme Court agreed.

McCorkell has concerns

Monmouth County Vocational School District Superintendent Timothy McCorkell said he has mixed feelings about the landmark ruling.

“The State of New Jersey has not met its funding obligation to public schools in the past 10 years,” said McCorkell. “The current Supreme Court decision only focuses on the Abbott schools, so the benefits are limited to them.”

As part of their decision, the Supreme Court ordered an additional $500 million be added to the Abbott Districts’ budget, which would be proportionally split between the 31 schools classified as Abbott schools.

“The Supreme Court decision means that students in the Abbott districts will receive state aid according to the (school funding) formula, and in this way their constitutional right is being met,” said Krengel.

Narrowing the Decision

Although the students at Asbury Park will now be fully funded by the standard of the School Funding Reform Act, many other schools will remain below the line, according to Krengel. They are not low-income districts.

In the majority opinion written by Justice LaVecchia, the court confined their ruling to only the 31 districts identified as Abbott districts.

“Although we are sympathetic to the difficulties that the state’s failure to abide by its statutory formula for education funding has caused to children in districts statewide, we are limited in our ability to order relief in this matter,” LaVecchia wrote.

She added, “The Abbott litigation has proceeded with two distinct adversarial parties: on the one side, New Jersey schoolchildren who attend schools in certain constitutionally deficient districts; and on the other side, the state, who has defended its funding schemes as consistent with the thorough and efficient clause.”

Justices could have ordered up to $1.7 billion in additional statewide education spending. Instead, they ordered $500 million to the Abbott Districts alone.

The Education Law Center had argued for full funding of the School Funding Reform Act for all school districts, said Krengel, the Law Center’s policy coordinator, but “because of the limited scope of the Abbott case, the Court ordered that the formula be fully funded in [2012 Budget] for students in only the 31 high-need, urban districts.

While the court’s order is limited, she said, the governor and the legislature have a duty and responsibility under the School Funding Reform Act to reverse the damage that the 2011 Budget cuts had on at-risk students wherever they reside in the state.

Judy Savage, executive director of the state Council of County Vocational-Technical Schools, told The Inkblot that the decision is too narrow.

“The state is funding just a small number of districts, the Abbott Districts, ignoring the need of students … in New Jersey who don’t attend an Abbott school but have the very same needs of those who do,” said Savage.

Superintendent McCorkell agreed with Savage’s assessment.

“The recent passage of the current funding formula, which was approved by the Supreme Court, was supposed to fix that, assuming it was fully funded,” McCorkell told The Inkblot.

Savage also said that in districts like CHS’s (the Monmouth County Vocational School District), no additional funding is received when students from Abbott districts attend the district in lieu of their home district.

Under the School Funding Reform Act, all economically disadvantaged students are taken into consideration, not just those in the 31 Abbott districts.

“This court decision goes back to focusing on only 31 Abbott districts, which is a step backwards,” said Savage.

In this school district, which receives students from four Abbott districts (Asbury Park, Neptune, Keansburg and Long Branch), the cuts in state aid from 2011 led to noticeable changes in the district, according to McCorkell.

“The original cuts did lead to a lessening of quality for students. Other than the loss of some clubs and paying more for trips, there was little impact at the career academies, although some fulltime teaching positions were cut in half. In shared-time however, several programs were cut, in addition to structured learning staff and the closing of the adult high school,” said McCorkell.

The MCVSD could have received additional funding, had the court decided to extend the verdict to all schools underfunded by the SFRA standard.

“Is it fair that the State of New Jersey has not met its statutory funding obligations to public schools for the past 10 years? Of course it is not fair, but yet that is what has happened. Fairness has little to do with funding,” McCorkell said.

Worth the Money?

State Sen. Kean, who represents most of Monmouth County, told The Inkblot the problem wasn’t the narrowness of the decision, but rather the Abbott system as a whole.

“The Abbott decision is flawed. We have already spent too much money on the 31 school districts known as the Abbotts. Often times we have not seen any positive results for the amount of money spent,” said Kean.

Results from the High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA) administered by the state Department of Education show 50.5 percent of students at Asbury Park High School are proficient in language arts and 20.5 percent are proficient in mathematics.

This is compared to the state average, where 88 percent of students are proficient in language arts and 75 percent are proficient in mathematics.

At CHS, 100 percent of students are at least proficient in both language arts and mathematics.

Krengel and the center say the Abbott System is working, and the low-incoming students in those areas are receiving a better education, regardless of test statistics.

“There is data that shows improvement in student outcomes in the Abbott districts, though that may vary from district to district. In addition, the Abbott preschool program has been highly successful and is a national model,” said Krengel.

Data from the state Department of Education show that over the last three years the graduation rate at Asbury Park High School has risen 19.4 percent, from 65.6 percent in 2009 to 85 percent in 2010.

“The Supreme Court appointed a special master to hold a hearing to determine if the cuts resulted in harm and to what extent. The special master heard from a number of superintendents about what was happening in their districts,” said Krengel. The special master’s report stated that four superintendents were interviewed, one being from an Abbott district.

The special master concluded that, after interviewing the superintendents and two experts on the subject, a thorough and efficient education was not being offered to students in all the districts.

“The master finds that despite the best effort of the superintendents, the [Comprehensive Core Curriculum Standards] are not being met at existing funding levels. The loss of teachers, support staff and programs is causing less advanced students to fall farther behind and they are becoming demonstrably less proficient,” the report stated.

Kean says that spending more money is not the answer. Historically, he added, spending additional money on education in a particular district doesn’t always have results.

“There isn’t always a correlation between spending and success,” said Kean. “I don’t think we should be measuring the amount of money spent as a gauge on whether or not our schools are successful. We’ve had situations where we’ve spent dollar after dollar into a particular district and, unfortunately, the money doesn’t always make it to the kids,” Kean said.

“Overall, the court decision is bad for the state of New Jersey.”

Covering the Tab

In a press conference following the court’s decision on May 24th, Gov. Chris Christie announced that he would offer no recommendation as to where the money should come from. Christie, who had already submitted the 2012 budget to the Legislature, said it is was up to the legislature to decide.

Many officials, including Savage and Krengel, say the money should not be drawn from the education system.

“The court decision has already created somewhat of a competition for funds, and I cannot foresee a scenario in which the legislature would take money for the Abbott districts from other districts. It would just create chaos,” said Savage.

McCorkell said MCVSD’s budget is already “very tight, but sufficient for the district to carry out its mission for next year.”

“To deal with this year’s $2 million loss in state aid, we cut everything we felt we could. Obviously, if there were further cuts at this late date, it could impact programs,” said McCorkell.

He also added that the district’s budget for the 2011-2012 year is already approved, but acknowledged, “this is a political decision, not an educational one, so anything is possible.”

Kean said he does not think that any new money should be spent to cover the new Abbott tab.

“The education model that was put forward by the Christie administration in the last budget (FY11) was adequate,” Kean said. Savage seemed to agree with Kean.

“It’s very likely that [the money] will come from new revenues due to an improving economy instead of taking it away from other school districts,” said Savage.

Krengel said that the center does not advocate where the money should come from, just that it be included in the FY12 budget.

“It’s going to require hard cuts all the way across the board,” said Kean. “It’s a ripple effect. There is only a certain amount of money in the budget.”

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