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New Jersey's Decades-Long School Finance Case: So, What's the Payoff?

In its pathbreaking Abbott v. Burke decision in 1990, the New Jersey Supreme Court laid the groundwork for providing extra state resources for 32 poor, urban school districts, dubbed the Abbott districts. Last May, following two decades of legal and legislative adjustments, the court allowed New Jersey to remove the Abbott designation, saying that, except for special cases like preschool and construction funding, poorer districts no longer needed the state’s help in providing educational resources equal to those provided by wealthier communities.
The Abbott case remains the most complex in the wave of adequacy lawsuits that have swept the nation during the past three decades, as plaintiffs in states around the country have sought to increase funding to comply with state constitutional guarantees to provide equal educational opportunities for all students.

On November 11 at a forum at Teachers College, four legal and education specialists assessed how successful the Abbott districts have been in providing equitable educational opportunities, and what the future holds for them as they lose their special-funding status.

The panel was sponsored by the Campaign for Educational Equity at Teachers College and introduced by Michael Rebell, the campaign’s founding executive director and the lead attorney for plaintiffs in an important educational equity lawsuit in New York.

The first speaker, David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center in Newark, said New Jersey has made progress toward more equitable funding for low-income districts. The Abbott districts also have produced high quality preschools that are models for the nation; instituted supplemental programs for at-risk children in grades K-through-12; and assisted in the building or renovation of 200 inner-city schools.

Sciarra, whose organization serves as a legal watchdog for the Abbott districts, said the gap in state math test scores between fourth graders in Abbott districts and non-Abbott districts narrowed from 31 points in 1999 to 19 points in 2007, and on state reading tests from 22 points in 2001 to 15 points in 2007. Success in eighth grade was more modest, narrowing from 30 points in 2000 for math in 2000 to 26 points in 2007, and staying at 20 points for reading during the same years. The achievement gap has not narrowed in high schools, but New Jersey has the highest high school graduation rates in the nation for African American males, Sciarra said.

“The truth is, we have started to make some real progress,” Sciarra said. “When people ask, ‘what did Abbott do,’ I say, we still have a long way to go, but the answer is, a heck of a lot.”

Gordon MacInnes, a fellow at the Century Foundation who oversaw implementation of the Abbott decisions as Assistant Commissioner at the New Jersey Department of Education from 2002 to 2007, delivered a mixed assessment. The gap in “life chances” between poor and middle-class and wealthy students in New Jersey and across the nation is “still substantial,” he said. “When you get to middle school, eighth grade, high school – forget about it. This has been a huge failure.”

MacInnes said Abbott, “arguably the most important judicial decision in education since Brown v. Board of Education” in 1954, has resulted in some meaningful changes in individual school districts for certain groups, such as free, high-quality preschools for three- and four-year olds. And some Abbott districts such as Union City, which instituted its own intensive K-4 literacy program and got adequate support for teachers, have done exceptionally well. But it has not produced the hard, concerted effort between students, teachers and parents – and, especially, the support of teachers of low-income students – that is necessary to get poor students on the same footing with wealthier ones.

Unlike the other speakers, who are long-time fighters for educational equity in New Jersey, Clifford Janey came with a fresh perspective, having signed on as superintendent of schools in Newark less than 18 months ago. Dr. Janey said Abbott’s biggest legacy in Newark, the largest city and school district in the state, was that it set a funding formula that gave Newark a chance to help its high-need students. “I think it did well by students in terms of pre-K,” Janey said. “We now have 82 percent of our three- to four-year old population involved in pre-K, up 10 percent from where it was the year before I came.”

But funding formulas and new programs will not solve the problems of poor students unless there are policies in place that support them, Janey said. Even with extra Abbott funding, he had to tighten graduation reporting and attendance requirements in Newark, for example. He had to come to an agreement with the Board of Education and teachers about what makes an effective teacher, what college readiness or job readiness looks like for graduating seniors, and how to work those attributes into the curriculum all the way back to preschool.

Education reform, Janey said, “has to do with the graduating class, and each step toward the graduating class, and how we are all accountable, but together.”

The forum was one of a series on education equity sponsored by the Campaign for Educational Equity at Teachers College. The next forum, Reframing Family Involvement:  Supporting Families to Support Educational Equity,” will be held on December 3 from 3:00 to 4:30 p.m. in Milbank Chapel at Teachers College.

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