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Same Day, Two Takes on New Jersey's Education Troubles

Supreme Court hears Abbott, State Board laments student achievement gap.

Credit: Mel Evans, Associated Press
David Sciarra, director of the Education Law Center, presents arguments in latest Abbott v. Burke challenge.

It was a fitting juxtaposition yesterday morning: two powerful state panels meeting at the same time in Trenton, less than a mile from each other, to discuss New Jersey’s public schools.

In the Hughes Justice Center, it was New Jersey’s Supreme Court hearing another chapter in the 30-plus-year epic Abbott v. Burke school equity case.

In oral arguments to the court, the hour-long legal parry centered on what is and what isn’t constitutional in the public schools at a time when there is little money to do much about it. There was no resolution, except a sense that more hearings are to come.

Student Achievement

But for all the lawyer talk about public schools, the state Board of Education at its monthly meeting nearby had different facts before it: a presentation of the state’s latest student achievement results.

Overall, the 2010 scores were pretty static, some drops from the year before but mostly increases from two years prior. High-school passing scores actually saw a nice jump, to 87 percent passing in language arts last year.

But at the same time, the passing rates for low-income and disadvantaged students at every grade level -- many of the very students that the Abbott case has sought to help -- remained troubling, as much as 30 points lower than their peers.

"These are presented as raw numbers, but then you realize these are real kids," Arcelio Aponte, the board’s president, said later. “We are looking at two-thirds of Hispanic students in a given grade who are failing to meet basic proficiency. Two-thirds."

The Court's Edicts

The numbers in the Supreme Court arguments were less about the test scores and more about the dollars.

The plaintiffs in the case, those who have represented low-income students through more than 20 decisions, argued that Gov. Chris Christie’s $1.1 billion in state aid cuts had violated the court’s previous edicts.

At the center was the court’s decision in 2009 to uphold the School Finance Reform Act as constitutional, as long as it was fully funded.

The court "accepted the state’s firm commitment to provide full funding as a condition of constitutionality," began David Sciarra of the Education Law Center, the Newark-based group that has led the case. "The plaintiffs are asking for no more than what the state was committed to do."

Lawyers for the Christie administration argued that the state simply has no money to fully fund the formula under the current economic crisis, saying it would have cost an additional $1.8 billion last year.

“The money was just not there,” said Nancy Kaplen, an assistant attorney general arguing for the state.

Economic Reality

And clearly it was a point the justices immediately grabbed hold of in their own questioning, the first three questions to Sciarra all asking the same thing.

"Is this court not to take into consideration this economic reality?" Justice Barry Albin asked in the first question of the day.

Sciarra initially hedged, and it took two more justices to ask the same question for Sciarra to say that the court has made clear in its litany of rulings what is a "fundamental constitutional right," regardless of ability to pay.

Still, Justice Jaynee LaVecchia asked whether the state would be in violation if it had underfunded the formula by just 75 cents. And Kaplen focused on the fact that the funding disparities that the court first sought to remedy three decades ago had long been resolved.

But the justices each appeared to want more information of the extent of the cuts, and each one mentioned the idea of appointing a "special master" to hold fact-finding hearings, a step they have taken at least three times before.

There is a danger to trying to predict final rulings using justices’ questions during oral arguments, but several lawyers said after the hearing that such a remand hearing looked likely.

Raising New Worries

Meanwhile, at the state Department of Education headquarters, members of the state Board of Education already had much of the evidence they needed in the test scores to raise new worries about the state of New Jersey’s schools.

As the day wore on and the board considered several proposals before it, the conversation often returned to the low performance of disadvantaged students. There were some gains in some places, but disheartening in others. Even in positive high school scores, the one group to see a drop were those with limited English skills.

One proposal before the board is to loosen the rules for superintendent certification, allowing those without education degrees to lead a district. Under the plan, it could apply to as many as 161 districts with substandard scores.

Board members raised a host of questions about the proposal, but even the most critical conceded that trying new approaches to solving the plight of the lowest performing schools held some merit.

‘We know that too many schools are failing our students, and we need to do something dramatically different,” Aponte said. “This is maybe one way to do that.”

After the meeting, Aponte said that making excuses in the face of the achievement gap is no longer an option.

“How do we turn that around? The standard answer you hear is, 'it’s complicated,' " he said. "But really, shame on us if we allow this to continue to happen."

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