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Opinion: Abbott XXI, a Ruling for the Faint-Hearted

The court and the governor could have used Abbott to help all poor kids. Now it's up to the legislature.

Timidity is neither an attractive nor a useful trait for a branch of the government. Unfortunately, when it comes to the Abbott XXI decision -- which mandates nothing less than a return to two-tiered school funding -- both the judicial and the executive branches have demonstrated a troubling faint-heartedness.

First, the court: a splintered, shrunken group comprising four justices and one substitute that produced four opinions marked by inconsistency and confusion.

In January, the court directed a Special Master to test the assertion of the Education Law Center (ELC) that the School Finance and Reform Act of 2007 (SFRA) was so badly funded that poor children were denied an adequate education.

The order to the Master was clear: determine if there’s enough money to provide a "constitutionally mandated thorough and efficient education for New Jersey schoolchildren.” Not schoolchildren in Abbott districts, but in New Jersey.

On May 24, the Court decided suddenly that its jurisdiction in the question "starts and ends" with children residing in the 31 Abbott districts. Once again, the constitution is read to apply to a list of cities that the court itself adopted back in 1990 and not to the majority of New Jersey’s poor children living in the other 585 school districts. Too bad, kids.

In deciding Abbott XXI, the court pretended that the Great Recession never happened and that the governor and legislature were willfully breaking their promises to fully fund SFRA (Gov. Corzine’s promise binds Gov. Christie).

More probably, the three-justice majority figured it could get away with a $500 million tab, but not the $1.6 billion it would take to fully fund SFRA.

(A mystery: the court’s most experienced justice, Virginia Long, presided when the Special Master was appointed, but recused herself from the decision.)

Second, the Governor. Previous threats to defy the Supreme Court to the contrary, Christie punted the problem to the Democratic majority in the legislature. That’s leadership. And as he did, he renewed his threats to remake the Court in his own image and cited it for overstepping its constitutional role.

The governor did make a fair point. More money does not guarantee better results. Camden’s 4.3 percent bump of $11.8 million will be spent with no noticeable improvement to student performance. If fully matched, Newark’s increase is actually greater than the nationally publicized Zuckerberg gift ($200 million over five years v. $46 million in 2012).

But if the added money is dribbled out with the same lack of thought of previous grants, then Newark’s kids will be no better off.

What the governor ignores is that money is a necessary, but not sufficient ingredient in improving education for poor kids. Otherwise, why has he protected New Jersey’s investment in preschool, as he has in two successive budgets? Ironically, neither the State nor the plaintiffs even mentioned the potent role of Abbott’s preschool funding in their filings.

The governor needs to look at the dramatic progress that has been made in several Abbott districts, in part, because of increased funding. Union City will use the godsend of $32.8 million to preserve its support for classroom teachers by retaining literacy, math and bilingual coaches in its schools and to concentrate on academics in middle and high school. Elizabeth is a larger district that has demonstrated that concentrating on preschool and intensive literacy in the primary grades produces results that are significantly better than those in other large, equally poor, districts.

This suggests that the governor and his education department could apply the lessons of Abbott’s success stories to its work with all districts with concentrations of poor kids. Instead of dismantling efforts to make early literacy the focus, it could extend assistance to districts like Newark and Camden, which have implemented programs without intensity and continuous scrutiny.

Finally, the Legislature. The Democratic leadership has been handed an opportunity to show that one branch of New Jersey government still works. It's off to a good start by criticizing the court for abandoning poor kids in the 585 non-Abbott districts and dressing down the governor for sharply cutting aid to them.

That’s easy.

Between now and June 30, the legislature must reconfigure the Christie budget for 2012 to comply with the court and find funds for aid to the non-Abbott districts.

The $500 million happily matches the unexpected revenue increase reported by the Treasurer. To use it for increased Abbott school aid, however, will mean having the sense to cut property tax rebates. Right now, the governor and legislative leaders seem convinced that they need to help 66-year-olds with $150,000 annual incomes more than all the others suffering in this recession.

If the Democrats use the same income standards for property tax rebates that the governor is using for Medicaid -- $5,300 for a family of three -- then there will be much more funding available for school aid across the state. Combined with the $250 million already included in the governor’s budget for increased aid, there might be enough to resuscitate SFRA and restore some balance to school funding. To bolster funds, legislators could defer some or all of the corporate tax cuts proposed in the Christie budget.

Timidity in the other two branches of government is no reason for the legislature to follow suit.

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