Taken from NYT today.
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
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
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
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
“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
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
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
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.”