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Opinion: Landmark School-Equity Ruling Still Resonates in New Jersey

But while state Supreme Court’s decision resulted in equal funding for poorer districts, goal of equal education remains elusive

laura waters
Laura Waters

Next month marks the 25th anniversary of the oral arguments over New Jersey’s most important public education lawsuit, Abbott v. Burke.

On Sept. 25, 1989, the Education Law Center (ELC) argued on behalf of students attending schools in Camden, East Orange, Jersey City and Irvington that New Jersey’s method of school funding, which left districts almost entirely dependent on local tax levies, violated the state Constitution’s promise of access to a “thorough and efficient education system.”

This Abbott II ruling, presaged by the 1972 Robinson v. Cahill school equity case, was issued the following June and is celebrated nationally as a touchstone for educational funding equity.

But the Robinson and Abbott decisions are also remarkable for their prophetic call for education reform tenets currently making the rounds, from Common Core politics to “The Colbert Report.”

The state Supreme Court asserts the need for school choice (Abbott II: “This record proves what all suspect: that if the children of poorer districts went to school today in richer ones, educationally they would be a lot better off”) to tenure reform (Robinson: “the importance of...tenure and lock-step salary ranges and their effects upon teacher performance”) to accountability (Robinson: “each school could be required to administer tests and submit reports of some uniform type so that comparisons could be made”).

We’ve embraced the fiscal leg of these bilateral decisions. Spending money is easier -- even the 1975 enactment of New Jersey’s first income tax in order to comply with another Robinson ruling -- than implementing systemic change.

Both locally and nationally, we’re struggling with implementing the other leg of the justices’ call for reforming public education, particularly the Abbott II ruling that challenges our historical reverence for local control.

Until the Robinson and Abbott decisions, New Jersey funded its public schools almost entirely through local property taxes. The state defended this regressive system by claiming that the Constitution only required “a minimum level of education,” and that this was guaranteed through compliance with regulations. Accordingly, rich districts reveled in having deep pockets while poor districts struggled to cover basic costs.

The Abbott II ruling, scathing and impassioned, dramatically changed the school-funding landscape.

Chief Justice Robert Wilentz, writing for a unanimous court, declared that school districts in New Jersey’s poorest districts were “failing abysmally, dramatically, and tragically.” The extent of the failure was “so deep, its causes so embedded in the present system, as to persuade us that there is no likelihood of achieving a decent education tomorrow, in the reasonable future, or ever.”

The state, he charged, was blinded to these inequities by a fixation on regulatory compliance. This myopia “consign[s] poorer children permanently to an inferior education on the theory that they cannot afford a better one or that they would not benefit from it.”

Therefore, relying on local property taxes to fund schools is unconstitutional and adequate funding, including compensatory services for disadvantaged students in New Jersey’s poorest 29 districts, “must be guaranteed and mandated by the State.” (Those 29 districts were called “Abbott districts” because the first name on the alphabetical list of plaintiffs was Raymond Abbott, a 12-year-old student from Camden. Two districts were added later.)

The court didn’t limit its pronouncement of inequity to funding formulas. The judges also pointed to the necessity of education reform in terms that today seem prescient.

In the second paragraph of the 69-page decision, Wilentz writes (emphasis my own): “We note the convincing proofs in this record that funding alone will not achieve the constitutional mandate of an equal education in these poorer urban districts; that without educational reform, the money may accomplish nothing; and that in these districts, substantial, far-reaching change in education is absolutely essential to success. The proofs compellingly demonstrate that the traditional and prevailing educational programs in these poorer urban schools were not designed to meet and are not sufficiently addressing the pervasive array of problems that inhibit the education of poorer urban children. Unless a new approach is taken, these schools -- even if adequately funded --will not provide a thorough and efficient education.”

ELC’s litigation on behalf of New Jersey’s poorest students during Abbott II (it also filed a voluminous amicus brief for Robinson) has produced the most progressive and ethical schoolfunding mechanism in the country.

While we seem to rifle through funding formulas like teenagers through clothing fads -- QEA, CEIFA, SFRA -- Abbott districts are no longer dependent on local tax levies. In 2012, for example, the Camden public schools, which serve 15,000 students, had total revenues of $377 million, or about $27,000 per pupil. Local taxpayers were responsible for only 1.9 percent of that total.

During the Abbott II argument, ELC relied not only on disparities in funding to demonstrate the need for reform but also student outcomes, entering into evidence statewide test scores.

In the late 1980s, ELC explained, statewide proficiency scores were 86 percent in reading and 72 percent in math. But in Camden, which ELC used often as an example of educational inequity, just 36 percent of students demonstrated proficiency in reading and only 28 percent were proficient in math.

Wilentz concluded, “[e]ducation has failed there, for both the students and the State.”

Twenty-five years later in Camden, funding equities remedied, 21 percent of students are proficient in reading and 31 percent are proficient in math. Twenty-four of its 26 schools are on the list of New Jersey’s 75 poorest-performing schools.

As Wilentz warned, “Without educational reform, the money may accomplish nothing.”

This stagnancy may change in Camden, as its new superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard begins to implement a strategic plan called the “Camden Commitment.” The plan relies in part on recent legislation, the Urban Hope Act, to expand public school choices for students and families through the establishment of hybrid charter/district schools.

Writes Rouhanifard, “Children are not thinking about how their school’s governance is organized, nor are parents who need a better option.”

The plan also includes improved security, (half of elementary school students feel unsafe in the bathrooms), community partnerships and interventions, building renovations, universal preschool, and improved educational and fiscal oversight.

In other words, Camden’s new plan abides by the Wilentz court’s mandate to rely not only on fiscal equity but also “substantial, far-reaching change in education.”

But here’s an irony: One of Camden’s obstacles to achieving that “far-reaching change” urged by the Wilentz court is the very organization that made its reputation in Abbott v. Burke.

Last month, for example, ELC issued one in a series of pre ss releases (rife with inaccuracies) challenging Camden’s implementation of the Urban Hope Act.

Thus, ELC, fixated on regulatory compliance, exhibits the myopia of the state it challenged a quarter-century ago. In turn, Camden’s public schools embody ELC’s former umbrage at educational inequities.

Education Law Center proudly owns New Jersey’s embrace of fair school funding. But all of us, for the sake of students in Camden and other urban districts who still struggle “abysmally, dramatically, and tragically,” need to harken back to the state Supreme Court’s visionary call for education reform.

Laura Waters writes about education politics and policy for NJ Spotlight and other publications. She also blogs at NJ Left Behind and has been a school board member in Lawrence Township (Mercer County) for 10 years.

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