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Abbott v. Burke: Not Simply About Poor, Inner-City School Districts

The State Supreme Court's fact-finding report lists 205 underfunded school districts -- both urban and suburban -- far more than the so-called Abbott 31.

"Below adequacy." It's not a pleasant phrase, but it could prove to be a critical one as the state Supreme Court weighs what to do next in New Jersey’s ongoing debate over the Abbott v. Burke school funding case.

That's because more than 200 school districts have been found by the court’s latest fact-finding hearings to be spending less than what the state's school funding formula deems as "adequate."

Adequacy is defined through a complex formula used in the state’s School Funding Reform Act (SFRA). It factors in the cost of educating a child with various needs, starting at just below $10,000 for a general education elementary school student and going up with age and requirements.

And the list of 205 districts is not just poor ones, the 31 so-called Abbott districts, but a mix across the state, including suburbs like Ridgefield, Toms River and Middletown. Actually, only about a third are high-poverty districts.

Now those districts -- spending some $1.1 billion less than needed to be found adequate -- could very well be Exhibit A in the next phase before the court, with the plaintiffs saying the 205 will be at the core of their argument for a remedy to the funding imbalance.

Implementing the Formula

"Assuming the court adopts [the fact-finding] report, we’ll be pushing for the prospective implementation of the formula in a manner that provides districts with the benefits that the formula calls for," said David Sciarra, director of the Education Law Center, the Newark group that has led the Abbott litigation.

"And that means a heavy focus on those lower-spending, below-adequacy districts," he said.

Moving up the timetable, the court set a new deadline of April 7 to receive legal briefs from both sides as it decides on what remedy it will take. The options are many, from ordering additional funding -- be it immediate or phased in, for some districts or all -- or taking a different path altogether, given the state’s fiscal crisis.

It’s no small issue, either, looming large over schools statewide and the state’s budget deliberations, just now underway.

In the wake of a fact-finding report that largely backed his argument word for word, Sciarra yesterday gave some other early hints of his upcoming strategy. In an analysis of how much each of the 205 districts fall under the adequacy levels, he stressed the cross-section of urban and suburban districts should put to rest that this is just about poor inner-city schools.

"It really underscores the misleading characterization of what we’re involved in," he said. "It’s no longer just Abbotts and non-Abbotts."

He also said the fact-finding report from Judge Peter Doyne agreed with the premise that the state’s school funding formula was central to determining what schools need to meet the constitutional guarantee to a "thorough and efficient" education, the primary question facing the high court.

"It’s the cost of providing the core curriculum content standards," said Sciarra. "And one of primary aims of the SFRA was to move those districts spending below up to adequacy over three years."

"What Judge Doyne addressed and what the court will be focused on is that formula," he said. "The formula matters."

In an interesting twist, the Christie administration said yesterday that it would bring in former Supreme Court justice Peter Verniero to help argue the case. Verniero is also a former attorney general who presented the state’s Abbott argument before the same court in 1996, on behalf of then Gov. Christine Whitman.

In the first day budget hearings before the legislature yesterday, the topic of the pending Abbott decision wasn’t far from anyone minds. The chief budget watcher with the state’s Office of Legislative Services (OLS), the legislature’s non-partisan staff, listed the pending decision as a wild card in the deliberations ahead.

"It now appears likely that the New Jersey Supreme Court will decide the most recent iteration of the school funding case before the FY12 budget is adopted, and their decision could certainly be consequential," said David Rosen, the OLS's budget and finance officer.

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