The NJ State Board of Education has ruled that students in 16 rural districts are not receiving a “thorough and efficient” education under the state school funding law, known as the Comprehensive Education and Improvement Financing Act (CEIFA). The Decision, adopted by the State Board on January 4th, addresses the districts’ challenge to CEIFA under the Education Clause of the NJ Constitution. The districts are also seeking the additional funding, preschool and other “Abbott” remedies provided to students in 31 poor urban or “Abbott” districts under the NJ Supreme Court’s rulings in the landmark Abbott v. Burke case.

The Decision overturns an April 2003 ruling by the Commissioner upholding CEIFA as applied to all of the districts, except Salem City, which became an Abbott district in 2004.

The 16 districts covered by the ruling are: Cape May County – Woodbine; Cumberland County — Commercial Township, Maurice River, Fairfield, Lawrence and Upper Deerfield; Atlantic County – Buena Regional, Egg Harbor City, Hammonton; Ocean County – Ocean Township, Little Egg Harbor Township, Lakehurst, Lakewood; Salem County – Quinton Township; Bergen County – Wallingford; Gloucester County – Clayton Borough.

The Decision affirms a factual record developed before an administrative law judge, finding numerous deficiencies in these districts including: low academic performance on the state assessments; high suspension rates; large class sizes; limited programming and teachers with advanced degrees; insufficient art, music, world language and science classes; a lack of services and programs for students with disabilities; and inadequate libraries and media centers. The Report also finds that, although the conditions of rural poverty “mirror” those in urban communities, the rural districts can only offer limited, half-day preschool programs, and lack funding for alternative education, counseling, special education and other supplemental or “at-risk” programs.

The Decision concludes that the education provided to rural students “simply cannot be considered adequate” by any measure. The Decision also concludes that, like their urban counterparts, the rural districts receive insufficient funding under the CEIFA funding law, particularly because the Legislature has not followed the law in four years.

The Decision, however, does not recommend providing the Abbott remedies to address education inadequacies in the districts. Instead, the Decision directs the Commissioner to present a plan and timeframe to conduct a needs assessment of each district, and present that plan to the State Board on February 15th.

The districts’ attorney, Fred Jacob has vowed to seek appellate court review of the State Board’s refusal to provide the basic Abbott remedies. ELC, which has been participating in support of the districts in the case, will continue to support the rural districts and students on appeal.

“We will join with the districts on appeal to press for that the Abbott remedies be made available now to address the serious educational deficiencies in these districts and schools,” said David Sciarra, ELC Executive Director and Abbott counsel. “We will also be making the case to Governor-elect Corzine and the Legislature that there is no reason to delay providing parity foundation funding, preschool for all three and four year olds, and school facilities improvements to our state’s neediest rural communities.”

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