Judges revive complaint that state is not providing enough funding to Lakewood’s schools

By: - March 7, 2023 7:03 am

The state must conduct a “thorough review” of parents' complaint that Lakewood's schools are unconstitutionally underfunded, Monday's ruling says. (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)

An appellate court panel has ordered the state Department of Education to review whether the state’s school funding formula leaves Lakewood public schools with substandard education that violates its students’ constitutional right to a “thorough and efficient” education.

Monday’s ruling stems from a nine-year legal dispute launched by a group of Lakewood parents who said the 5,000-student Ocean County district does not receive sufficient state funding. Acting Education Commissioner Angelica Allen-McMillan dismissed the group’s petition in 2021, but Monday’s ruling orders Allen-McMillan to perform a “thorough review” of the initial complaint.

Allen-McMillan’s 2021 decision dismissing the petition was inadequate because she used the wrong standard of review, Monday’s ruling says.

A spokesperson for Lakewood schools did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The decision describes the school environment in Lakewood — a town of 140,000 with a large Jewish Orthodox community — as “unique and precarious.” Though the town has about 37,000 school-aged children, about 84% are enrolled in private religious schools, and the school district’s $146 million budget has been “severely strained” by paying for transportation and special education tuition for many of the students not enrolled in the public schools, according to the decision.

In the Lakewood parents’ 2014 complaint — filed against the state Department of Education, its commissioner, and the state Board of Education — they claimed the School Funding Reform Act of 2008 is unconstitutional as it applies to Lakewood. The law created a school funding formula to balance how much each district in the state receives in state aid, based on factors like enrollment and need. But the funding formula does not account for the costs associated with sending so many of Lakewood’s students to non-public schools.

Susan Scarola, the administrative law judge who initially heard the parents’ complaint, found in March 2021 that Lakewood was indeed falling short of its requirement to provide a “thorough and efficient” education. She said that the district’s test scores fall well below the state average, Lakewood has low rates of graduation and college enrollment, and there are high rates of chronic absenteeism. 

But Scarola ruled that the inadequate education Lakewood students faced was due to local mismanagement and other factors, not because of the school funding formula.

Education Commissioner Angelica Allen-McMillan disagreed with an administrative law judge who in 2021 said Lakewood public school students are not receiving a thorough and efficient education as required by the state constitution. (Courtesy of NJ Governor’s Office)

Allen-McMillan agreed with Scarola that the funding formula is not a constitutional violation but rejected her finding that Lakewood students were not receiving an adequate education. Allen-McMillan argued that Lakewood met federal education targets, provided Advanced Placement courses, and has seen improved test scores. 

The Lakewood parents appealed Allen-McMillan’s decision to state Superior Court, leading to Monday’s ruling. The appellate panel said Allen-McMillan’s “glass half full” view of Lakewood’s schools was not enough to declare that the school district’s students are receiving a thorough and efficient education.

The court found McMillan used the “wrong standard” in her determination. Instead of comparing the current situation in Lakewood to the school conditions found more than 30 years ago in some of the state’s most struggling districts, Allen-McMillan should have addressed whether Lakewood is “failing to provide its students with a minimum level of educational content and opportunity as required by our Constitution today,” the ruling says.

A host of data on everything from graduation rates to test scores to the number of students enrolling in colleges “supports the argument the quality of education in Lakewood, even in core, non-elective areas, is deficient,” the decision says.

Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story misstated Lakewood’s population.

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Sophie Nieto-Munoz
Sophie Nieto-Munoz

Sophie Nieto-Muñoz, a New Jersey native and former Trenton statehouse reporter for NJ.com, shined a spotlight on the state’s crumbling unemployment system and won several awards for investigative reporting from the New Jersey Press Association. She was a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists for her report on PetSmart's grooming practices, which was also recognized by the New York Press Club. Sophie speaks Spanish and is proud to connect to the Latinx community through her reporting.