Before moving on to yet more court hearings and documents surrounding the Abbott v. Burke school equity case -- there have been 20 decisions after all -- there is an opportunity to revisit an opinion that was as deep as it was long.
State Superior Court Judge Peter Doyne, the chief assignment judge in Bergen County, last week fulfilled his task as "special master" to the state Supreme Court in issuing a 96-page evidentiary opinion on the state of public education in New Jersey.
It was high-charged, high-profile opinion. Headlines raged that he had found schools struggling to maintain a "thorough and efficient" education under the weight of Gov. Chris Christie and the legislature’s steep state budget cuts this year.
But how Doyne delivered his findings is as intriguing as what he said -- even with just a word or two -- on everything from school accountability to teacher wage freezes.
Here’s a few of the more intriguing excerpts:
On New Jersey’s long history and interest in school equity (p. 8): Educational reform in the State of New Jersey has been a crusade waged in the courts for nearly four decades, producing twenty Supreme Court opinions in an effort to provide the schoolchildren of New Jersey with their constitutional right to a thorough and efficient education. No other issue has, even remotely, been the focus of such scrutiny and controversy.
School accountability (p. 52): One area of concern identified by the State’s witness is the lack of a uniform standard within the State to determine whether a district is meeting or exceeding the CCCS [Core Curriculum Content Standards] … In other words, there is no standard similar to the 200-point "pass" score, which would require a district to have a certain percentage of its students pass in order to be considered meeting the CCCS. The assessments currently used by the State are either the statewide benchmarks under No Child Left Behind or the yearly progress towards those benchmarks. The lack of a uniform method to determine whether a district is meeting the CCCS is problematic, as this remand requires determining whether a thorough and efficient education can be delivered as measured by the CCCS, not by No Child Left Behind or any other standards.
Witnesses from Piscataway, Woodbridge, Bridgeton and Montgomery schools (pps. 56-57): The superintendents appeared to be capable, hardworking and dedicated educators committed to the goal all of their students should meet or exceed the CCCS. The educators seemed to be genuinely motivated to provide the highest level educational experience to the students in their respective districts, given existing funding levels, while recognizing there need necessarily be some limit on educational funding. Their collective commitment to attempt to ensure all students meet the CCCS was clear. Their district’s ability to do so with current level of funding was far less certain.
Challenges of equitable funding in any year (p. 62): One factor which makes educational funding problematic, and elusive, is the wide disparity between districts, whether by population, demographics, wealth, geography, and/or the like. While it may be possible for one district to achieve $1 million in savings, for another a $100,000 may not be possible. Without sufficient proofs, any finding concerning the overall amount of savings "efficiencies" would be mere speculation.
The state of schools in 2011 and the state’s burden of proof (p. 72): The loss of teachers, support staff and programs is causing less advanced students to fall farther behind and they are becoming demonstrably less proficient. Is there a concern teachers have failed to heed the request to freeze their salaries in an effort to assist their students, certainly. Are there concerns the various collective bargaining agreements curtail flexibility and available teaching time, certainly. The directive to this court, though, is clear and the superintendents’ testimony, collectively, did not allow this court to find the State had met its burden, at least with regard to these witnesses.
Cost savings – and obstacles -- in Clifton and Buena Regional (pps. 84-85) The two superintendents recounted the various efficiency measures implemented by their districts, including saving on cafeteria services, transportation costs, health care plans, and legal services. It was clear from their testimony the obstacles to cost savings were much the same as those identified by the defendants’ district witnesses: collective bargaining agreements, teacher tenure, including the high costs associated with removal of a tenured teacher for inefficiency, the school district’s board of education’s decision to abide by voter rejection of increased tax levies, and the unfortunate rejection of pay freezes by teachers’ associations.
The court’s constitutional duty (p. 94): Our Court has recognized, as it must, it cannot and should not run our school system. That responsibility must repose with the other branches of government, and thereafter with the Department of Education and the various districts in the prudent utilization of funding provided. That said, the Court cannot abandon or waiver from its constitutional commitment. Although discretion had been afforded to the individual districts to spend their allocated monies in a manner that best serves those districts’ needs, it was painfully obvious important support and ancillary programs have been eliminated in effectuating the imposed reductions. These programs had helped bring our at-risk and under- performing students closer to the mandated standards.
The “irony” of the current debate (pps. 94-95) The irony of the parties’ current position is too obvious to note. Two years ago, the State came before this court and the New Jersey Supreme Court urgently petitioning for an abandonment of parity funding, and an acceptance and implementation of a fairer funding formula which was structured to ensure all students in New Jersey, not just those who by happenstance resided in the Abbott districts, receive a thorough and efficient education as measured by the Comprehensive Core Curriculum Standards. The plaintiffs, with equal fervor, argued the formula inadequately cared for our disadvantaged youth and implored the Court to retain the parity remedy, at least until a more equitable formula could be enacted. Now, less than two years thereafter, the State seeks to abandon the formula it fought so strenuously to support, and the plaintiffs insist the formula must be supported.
An “exquisite balance” and the task at hand (p. 95) The difficulty in addressing New Jersey’s fiscal crisis and its constitutionally mandated obligation to educate our children requires an exquisite balance not easily attained. Fair and equitable education funding is a conundrum that has been addressed by our Court for almost forty years and, one might imagine, is not soon to conclude. Progress has been made; how to maintain that progress in light of daunting fiscal realities, reposes with our highest Court and the other coordinate branches. Something need be done to equitably address these competing imperatives.