Courting disaster

Schools in Garfield, New Jersey, boast the latest in high-priced amenities, including a spanking new $40 million middle school. Odd for a blue-collar city with low school taxes, unless one knows that Garfield is in a so-called Abbott school district--one of 31 poor New Jersey districts that, by court order, have received $35 billion in state aid since 1997. Today, over half of all money each year allotted by Jersey to its 616 districts goes to those 31. The money seems to have helped in some places: 79.9 percent of Garfield's fourth graders, for example, reached the proficient level in language arts in 2005. But student achievement in other cities such as Camden has stagnated, and their schools are often mired in scandal. "Lots of money has been spent, and in some places, there is very little to show," said Lucille E. Davy, the state's education commissioner. New Jersey is right to base its school funding on need, but the Abbott formula is far too crude and, because it focuses on entire districts and not individual students, often ends up benefiting affluent kids in poor districts (at the expense of needy students in richer areas). But one can't expect much more from adequacy lawsuits, such as the one that generated the Abbott system. States take heed: To do need-based funding right, fund the child. And leave the courts out of it.

"In New Jersey, System to Help Poorest Schools Faces Criticism," by Winnie Hu, New York Times, October 30, 2006

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