October 30, 2006 In New Jersey, System to Help Poorest Schools Faces Criticism By WINNIE HU GARFIELD, N.J. ? The residents of this tumbledown city of 30,000 routinely voted down school budgets over the years, leaving their schools so hard up by the early 1990s that broken windows were patched with cardboard and principals did their own typing because they could not afford secretaries.
Though school taxes remain relatively low, the 5,000 students in this city of former woolen mills and soda factories in Bergen County now enjoy many of the privileges of much wealthier suburban districts: year-round preschool, modern computer labs and a new $40 million middle school ? all of it paid for by the state of New Jersey.
Garfield is a so-called Abbott school district, one of 31 poor districts that have received a total of $35 billion in state aid since 1997 as part of an ambitious court-ordered social experiment to narrow the achievement gap between rich and poor students, whites and minorities. In a decision that set a precedent for school equality cases nationwide, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that the poorest urban school districts should be given the resources to spend as much on their students as the wealthiest suburban districts do.
Now a growing number of New Jersey elected officials, educators and parents are calling for sweeping changes to this school financing system, saying that it has wasted millions of taxpayer dollars in the Abbott districts. For every success story like Garfield, where fourth-grade test scores have risen to the state average, there are chronic problems, like those in Newark, Camden and Asbury Park.
Today, the Abbott districts serve 286,500 children in kindergarten through 12th grade ? about 21 percent of the state?s students ? but get $4.2 billion a year in state aid, slightly more than half of all the state money given to New Jersey?s 616 school districts. The Abbotts are among the highest-spending school districts in the state, averaging $14,038 per student compared with $10,509 statewide. The vast majority of districts that fall between richest and poorest say they are increasingly bearing the burden of the Abbotts? getting so much of the money.
Gov. Jon S. Corzine has made school financing a priority in his efforts to reduce property taxes, and next month the State Legislature is expected to propose a new school aid formula that will seek to distribute aid to all school districts based on their numbers of poor students, rather than focusing on just 31 districts in what has been called an all-or-nothing approach. The Abbott districts and their advocates have vowed to fight any reduction in state aid, signaling another round of court battles.
In the meantime, state education officials plan to audit all 31 Abbotts in the next year after finding that the highest-spending districts were making the fewest gains. Asbury Park spent the most, $18,661 per student, in the 2004-5 school year. Still, slightly fewer than half the district?s fourth-grade students were proficient in state language arts and math tests in 2005. ?What we know is lots of money has been spent, and in some places, there is very little to show,? said Lucille E. Davy, the education commissioner.
For their part, the Abbott districts have criticized what they see as a bureaucratic system that undermines local authority and forces them to adopt programs that they do not need. For instance, Patrick Gagliardi, the Hoboken superintendent, said that he is required to provide full-day preschool to every 3- and 4-year-old child in his district, regardless of income, a mandate that now benefits many affluent families. ?The court intended to help poor people, not the wealthy,? he said. ?Now it?s costing the state more money, and it?s inefficient and flawed.?
The debate over the Abbott districts has spread outside urban centers to affluent suburban communities from Ridgewood to Cherry Hill, where local officials have repeatedly raised taxes and slashed school budgets to offset their own dwindling share of state aid. Many of them say the huge amounts of money given to Abbott schools versus non-Abbott schools has polarized parents and teachers between school districts
?We resent a system that has not provided adequately for our children,? said Elisabeth Ginsburg, the Board of Education president in Glen Ridge, where less than 5 percent of the $23.5 million school district budget is covered by state aid.
Critics often single out Hoboken as an example of an Abbott district that should no longer be one, since rapid development has drawn affluent newcomers. Hoboken actually gets far less state aid than other urban areas because it already spent more on its students than other Abbotts. Hoboken gets about $12.2 million a year, but as an Abbott, its plans for a new $25 million high school would be fully subsidized by the state.
In this year?s budget, state education officials withheld a total of $23 million from eight Abbott districts, including Garfield, where property values have risen but local taxes remain relatively low, forcing them to raise local taxes and shoulder more of their school costs. Republican lawmakers have also introduced a bill that would phase out 13 Abbott districts that have thrived economically in recent years.
?Why should we continue to support them?? asked Assemblyman Joseph R. Malone III, a former school administrator who has sponsored the bill. ?It?s like saying to somebody who?s on welfare: ?Stay on welfare and receive the benefits even if you?re a millionaire now.? ?
The Abbott districts grew out of a 1981 lawsuit, Abbott v. Burke, which claimed that the state had failed to remedy disparities between rich and poor school districts. In a series of decisions spanning two decades, the state?s highest court relied on an 1875 amendment to the New Jersey Constitution requiring the Legislature to establish a system of ?thorough and efficient? education for every child. It struck down the school financing system as unconstitutional in 1990, saying that it deprived poor urban districts of resources, and ordered lawmakers to address the problem.
After years of delays, the state court ruled in 1997 that the poorest urban districts should spend as much on their students as the wealthiest suburban districts. That exceeded the standard in other states to simply match the average state spending per student. The court designated 28 Abbott districts based on a state list of poor urban communities, and the Legislature added two more districts a year later. A third, Salem City, was included by lawmakers in 2004 after it sued to become an Abbott district.
Paul Tractenberg, a professor at Rutgers Law School in Newark who has advocated on behalf of the Abbotts, said the court ordered the current school financing system for lack of a better alternative, and largely left the future designation of Abbott districts to state legislators and education officials. He supports efforts to come up with a new school aid formula, saying, ?We?re spending the right amount in the Abbott districts; the problem is we?re not spending enough in the other poor districts.?
Assemblyman Bill Baroni, a Republican who does not represent an Abbott district, says that changing the Abbott system is such a politically divided issue that the Legislature has been generally reluctant to act. ?Every time there is talk of removing a school district,? he said, ?instantly massive political opposition forms in that district.?
But as New Jersey has struggled with fiscal problems, the Abbotts have come under increasing pressure to justify their high cost. The results are mixed across districts, but over all, the Abbotts have improved their test scores, particularly in the lower grades. For instance, 66 percent of Abbott students were proficient in the fourth-grade language arts test in 2005, compared with 29.5 percent in 1999, but that still falls below the 85.5 percent of proficient students in non-Abbott districts. The gap is larger on the math test and among students in higher grades.
Ellen Frede, co-director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, said that larger gains would come as Abbott districts built on their strong preschool programs. In a 2005 report based on testing in the 15 largest Abbotts, her group found that students were better prepared for kindergarten. ?The overwhelming data is this is a good use of state taxpayer money,? she said.
But critics of the Abbotts say they have grown impatient with the problems in some districts. This month, a state fiscal monitor was appointed to oversee the scandal-ridden Camden district, where the superintendent, Annette Knox, resigned in June amid investigations into bonuses that she received. The district spent $15,420 per student in the 2004-5 school year, though its test scores lag behind the other Abbott districts.
Bart Leff, a spokesman for the Camden schools, said the district?s 15,500 students are mostly poor minorities who have ?significantly more need for the money? than those in better-off communities. ?We are an urban school district in a poverty-stricken city,? he said.
In contrast, the Abbott money has ushered in major changes in Garfield, reinvigorating the schools after decades of neglect and decline. In 2005, 79.9 percent of the district?s fourth-grade students were proficient in the language arts test, just below the statewide average of 81.2 percent. Garfield students performed even better in math, with 81.8 percent proficient compared with 80.2 percent statewide.
Nearly two-thirds of the district?s $66 million annual budget, or $41.7 million, is covered by state aid; the district has received a total of $370.7 million since 1997. The rest is raised largely through local taxes. Though property values have climbed in recent years, school officials said that many residents are senior citizens and recent immigrants who can ill afford any increases.
In the past three years, residents have twice rejected the school budget, including the one for the current school year. Under state law, Garfield city officials then propose cuts to the budget, but as an Abbott district, the total budget cannot fall below the previous year?s spending level. The budget rose by $915,000 this year after state education officials forced the city to raise taxes.
Nicholas L. Perrapato, the superintendent, said the district has come to rely on the Abbott money. He said it has allowed them to hire more teachers, reduce class sizes, and update textbooks and curriculums. (Second graders now learn PowerPoint.) It has meant that two new schools could be built ? the first in nearly 50 years ? and that students could get a taste of unheard-of luxuries such as teams for swimming, tennis and volleyball.
?Without the money, we?d be in dire straits,? Mr. Perrapato said. ?If they de-Abbotize us, you?re looking at rolling up the carpets because the people here would never be able to afford to keep the programs we have in place.?