TRENTON, N.J. — New Jersey is failing miserably at educating poor urban students, the state Supreme Court ruled Tuesday in a decision that declared unconstitutional the way aid is distributed to public schools.
The high court ruled, in effect, that determining school funding based on property tax revenues is unfair.
"The evidence compels but one conclusion: the poorer the district and the greater its need, the less the money available, and the worse the education," Chief Justice Robert N. Wilentz wrote. "These students simply cannot possibly enter the same market or the same society as their peers educated in wealthier districts."
The justices, in a unanimous decision, ordered lawmakers to begin reforms by the 1991-92 school year.
The state must assure that poor urban districts spend about the same amount of money per child as richer suburban districts, the court ruled.
The court estimated that the state needs to add $440 million to its $3.5-billion public schools budget to remedy disparities in the 28 poorest districts.
"Today's ruling is a clear victory for the children of New Jersey," said Gov. James J. Florio, who last week announced a plan to raise the state income tax. The tax increase would raise $1 billion for more aid to middle-income and poor districts, and aid to wealthier school systems would be reduced or eliminated.
"The court has recognized that the current school funding system is leading us to be two New Jerseys--where some youngsters head for the best colleges and others go down a road to nowhere," Florio said, predicting that his reform proposal will satisfy the court.
New Jersey is among more than a dozen states in which courts have overturned school finance systems in recent years.