On appeal from State Board of Education.
Fritz, Botter and Ard. The opinion of the court was delivered by Botter, J.A.D.
[162 NJSuper Page 540] By notice of appeal filed on June 13, 1977 pursuant to R. 2:2-3(a)(2),*fn1 appellants seek to review certain administrative action taken by the Commissioner of Education (Commissioner) and the State Board of Education (State Board) at the State Board's April 6, 1977 meeting. The action involves procedures for achieving a "thorough and efficient system" of public education (T and E) mandated by N.J. Const. (1947), Art. VIII, § IV, para. 1, as implemented by the Legislature in the Public School Education Act of 1975, L. 1975, c. 212, N.J.S.A. 18A:7A-1 et seq. (the 1975 Education Act or 1975 act), as amended by L. 1976, c. 97 (referred to as the Basic Skills Act), and as interpreted by our Supreme Court in a series of opinions and orders in the Robinson v. Cahill saga*fn2 [162 NJSuper Page 541] At the State Board's April 6, 1977 meeting, the Commissioner reported that he did not intend to classify schools and school districts for the school year 1976-77 as "approved, conditionally approved or unapproved," as defined in the State Board's regulations. N.J.A.C. 6:8-1.1; N.J.A.C. 6:8-6.2. In explaining his decision the Commissioner stated that incomplete data would be available to him in the start-up year because of an unavoidable time lag in translating the statutes and regulations into working procedures for local school districts. In addition, the Commissioner noted that amendments to the 1975 act made by the Basic Skills Act of 1976 added to his administrative burden. At the same meeting the State Board concurred in the Commissioner's decision, subject to his reporting, in September 1977, on the progress local school districts were making in submitting educational plans (see the definition of "educational plan" in N.J.A.C. 6:8-1.1, and see N.J.A.C. 6:8-3.1 as to the development and implementation of such a plan). Appellants contend that the Commissioner's decision and the State Board's ratification violate obligations imposed upon respondents by the 1975 act and by the State Board's own regulations.*fn3
The genesis of this dispute is the constitutional imperative of the Education Clause which requires the State government, through the Legislature, to provide a thorough and efficient system of free schooling for all children in the state. As stated by Chief Justice Weintraub in Robinson I:
Indeed the State has never spelled out the content of the educational opportunity the Constitution requires. Without some such prescription, it is even more difficult to understand how the tax burden can be left to local initiative with any hope that statewide equality of educational opportunity will emerge. * * *
We repeat that if the State chooses to assign its obligation under the 1875 amendment to local government, the State must do so by a plan which will fulfill the State's continuing obligation. To that end the State must define in some discernible way the educational obligation and must compel the local school district to raise the money necessary to provide that opportunity. [62 N.J. at 516, 519]
It is readily seen that the 1975 Education Act was designed to comply with the constitutional demand. The act combined a new formula for equalizing the financial capacity of local districts with a comprehensive plan for defining educational goals and evaluating the performance of the educational system. N.J.S.A. 18A:7A-4 establishes in broad terms the goal of a thorough and efficient school system, as follows:
N.J.S.A. 18A:7A-5 adopts certain principles as "major elements" of such a system and as guidelines for achieving the legislative goal. These include the establishment of "educational goals at both the State and local levels" and evaluating and monitoring performance at State and local levels. N.J.S.A. 18A:7A-6 requires the State Board in turn to establish "goals and standards" for "all public schools in the State," "standards" being defined by N.J.S.A. 18A:7A-3 as "the process and stated levels of proficiency"
for measuring compliance with goals and objectives. These must be reviewed and updated at least every five years. N.J.S.A. 18A:7A-8. As amended by the Basic Skills Act, N.J.S.A. 18A:7A-6 also requires the State Board to fix "uniform Statewide standards of pupil proficiency in basic communications and computational skills" (basic skills). Local boards of education must also establish educational goals, N.J.S.A. 18A:7A-7, under rules prescribed by the State Board. N.J.S.A. 18A:7A-6.
The method chosen by the Legislature for holding state and local agencies accountable for their performance involves a system of evaluation, enforcement and reporting. This appeal focuses upon that system.
Each year each district must "evaluate pupil proficiency" in basic skills by "annual testing" and other appropriate means "to determine pupil status and needs." N.J.S.A. 18A:7A-7, as amended. Where proficiency in basic skills is below the "Statewide standard," interim goals shall be established by the local board so that each pupil will make reasonable progress toward achieving "at least the Statewide standard of proficiency," Id. Suggested measures for improvement are contained in N.J.S.A. 18A:7A-7, as amended. As part of its annual educational plan, each district must develop a "basic skills improvement plan for progress toward" interim goals. Id.
N.J.S.A. 18A:7A-10 provides for evaluation by the Commissioner in these terms:
For the purpose of evaluating the thoroughness and efficiency of all the public schools of the State, the commissioner, with the approval of the State board and after review by the Joint Committee on the Public Schools, shall develop and administer a uniform, Statewide system for evaluating the performance of each school. Such a system shall be based in part on annual testing for achievement in basic skill areas, and in part on such other means as the commissioner deems proper in order to (a) determine pupil status and needs, (b) ensure pupil progress, and (c) assess the degree to which the educational objectives have been achieved.
N.J.S.A. 18A:7A-9 provides for a "comprehensive needs assessment program of all pupils in the State" at least once every five years ...