Part Two: Recent Performance and Funding Changes

While recent data concerning the school’s performance is unavailable, the recent funding changes implemented by Gov. Jon Corzine, the School Funding Reform Act, has an effect on all New Jersey public schools, especially those in Abbott districts. “There is no absolute guarantee that SFRA will achieve the results desired by all,” Justice Jaynee LaVecchia writes in the opinion. “The political branches of government, however, are entitled to take reasoned steps, even if the outcome cannot be assured, to address the pressing social, economic and educational challenges confronting our state.” Previously, the state Supreme Court had ordered that New Jersey’s poorest school districts be funded on par with the state’s wealthiest. Under the formula adopted last year state aid is distributed based on enrollment, with extra money going to communities with high concentrations of students who are poor, have special needs or have limited English skills. The new formula “links aid to the number of students in any district, with a bonus for poor or otherwise at-risk students” rather than focusing state aid solely on the poorest districts (“Questions”).

Therefore, for the 2008-2009 school year, the state deemed the cost of educating an elementary school student to be $9,649, with a bonus of $4, 535 for each poor elementary school student. This does not necessarily mean Abbott districts will receive less aid, but the state is freezing the funds where they stand, which ensures that the schools will at least receive as much aid as they had been in the past unless enrollment drops by five percent. However, supplementary aid, as discussed in Part One, is now disabled. “This funding formula… must be allowed to work as it was intended,” the court wrote. “…Supplemental funding may undermine or distort the effectiveness of SFRA.” This freezing represents a “major change in trend” as these districts have seen “steep increases in aid over the past ten years,” yet flat-funding will still be difficult due to fixed costs, such as negotiated salary increases and health insurance (“Questions”).

Lawyers for the poorer districts, however, insist that the ruling will “ensure a steady erosion of gains made over the past decade and harm the 300,000 children who attend school there” (Dela Cruz). “The formula… the court has upheld is a major setback for children in both the high-poverty, urban districts but also in the higher-spending districts,” states David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, which has argued the case on behalf of the Abbott students (qtd. in Dela Cruz). Because of the significant impact this new plan will have, the court ordered the state to review how the new formula is working in three years. The law center argues even flat-funding for the poorest district will mean huge strains, because fixed increases like salaries and energy bills will lead to shortfalls. However, as Perth Amboy Superintendent John Rodecker states, under the ruling, the term “Abbott District” goes away. “Just the absence of the designation in and of itself, I think is significant,” he has said (qtd. in Cruz).

Despite this decrease in appropriated funding, more than $32.8 million in grants have been given to 18 states and the District of Columbia as part of a joint effort by the U.S. Departments of Education, Health and Human Services, and Justice to support schools in creating safer and healthier learning environments. Under the initiative, school districts, in partnership with local public mental-health agencies, law-enforcement and juvenile justice entities, must implement a comprehensive, community-wide plan that focuses on the following elements:

  • Safe school environments and violence prevention activities
  • Alcohol, tobacco and other drug prevention activities
  • Student behavioral, social and emotional supports
  • Mental-health services
  • Early childhood social and emotional learning programs.

“Every child in America deserves a safe and healthy school environment, and it’s our job as educators, parents and community members to ensure that happens,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said. “The Safe Schools/Healthy Students grants will provide students with access to services and programs that promote healthy development, personally and academically.” The Safe Schools/Healthy Students Initiative has been in progress since 1999, and draws on the best practices of education, juvenile justice, law enforcement and mental-health systems to provide integrated resources for prevention and early intervention services for children and youth.

Trenton was selected to receive a 2009 SS/HS grant award, and the Trenton SS/HS project will serve all 21 schools in the district, focusing on those students at highest risk of violence, substance abuse, and mental health problems. Some of the proposed activities, curricula, programs and services include nurse/family partnership, after-school programming, mentoring, Functional Family Therapy and crisis prevention planning and training. The organizations supporting the Trenton SS/HS project are Trenton Police Department, Juvenile Justice Commission, and Greater Trenton Behavioral Health Care.

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