The notion of a "thorough and efficient" education has been disputed in New Jersey for more than a century, since the state’s voters in 1875 confirmed it as a constitutional guarantee.
Some 135 years later, a daylong hearing in a Hackensack courtroom yesterday was a clear reminder that the meaning of the phrase remains an unsettled issue.
The setting was the first day in what is slated to be a month of fact-finding hearings about the impact on public education of Gov. Chris Christie's and the legislature's more than $890 million in state aid cuts last year.
Part of a larger challenge in the epic Abbott v. Burke hearings, the question before the court is whether schools have been left unable to attain that constitutional mandate. The discussion was wide-ranging, touching on curriculum, class size, sports and even school busing.
State Superior Court Judge Peter Doyne, holding the fact-finding hearings for the state Supreme Court, repeatedly asked the same question of the two school superintendents who were the day’s star witnesses.
"Can you provide a thorough and efficient education for a majority of your children that meets the state’s core curriculum standards?" Doyne asked Woodbridge superintendent John Crowe in the afternoon.
The answers were murky, to be sure, with lawyers and educators going back and forth in defining what that meant. There was some consensus that meeting the state’s core curriculum standards, a patchwork of requirements developed over the past decade, was part of the definition.
Crowe and Piscataway superintendent Robert Copeland, the morning’s witness, both cited cuts in world language classes that were in clear defiance of the standards’ requirements.
Still, the superintendents also stressed that they were providing the very best education they could, given the circumstances.
"With all due respect, to the best of our ability, that is our intention, that is our wish," Copeland said. "I just think there are areas where we are having a great deal of difficulty."
The judge persisted. From the bench, Doyne also asked about increases in class sizes, cuts in middle school sports and even Woodbridge’s planned reduction in busing for kindergarteners.
"You have kindergarten children walking a mile to school?" he asked Crowe, with some astonishment.
Still, the court’s own definition of "thorough and efficient" hasn’t always been much clearer over the years. Even back in 1875, there was some dispute whether the state should be guaranteeing a "rudimentary" education instead of a "thorough" one.
On September 7, 1875, a rancorous vote decided by a margin of 400,000 citizens angrily pitted classes, ideologies and religions. Much of the fight was between Protestants and Catholics as to what should define education for the masses, the latter seeking a share in the public funds for their schools.
The Protestants won, and in the end it was the following language that remains in the Constitution: "The legislature shall provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of free public schools for the instruction of all the children in this state between the ages of five and eighteen."
But in the earliest days of Abbott and before that in its predecessor case, Robinson v. Cahill, the court grappled with what that meant.
Paul Tractenberg is the founding director of the Education Law Center that first brought the case and carries it to this day. He recalls some of his earliest legal briefs making the point that the intent was about optimal education more than just an adequate one.
"And over the years, slowly and incrementally, the court came to understand it as the best possible education for urban kids," said Tractenberg, a Rutgers law professor who yesterday watched the hearings with some of his law students.
"Notwithstanding what this court will do," he said, "there has been a steady ratcheting of it up."