Spotlight Q&A: “Thorough and Efficient” Education

A phrase incorporated into the constitution in 1875 proves to have great resonance and relevance to the current round of Abbott v. Burke challenges

Harriet Sepinwall, a professor at St. Elizabeth’s College in Morristown, did her doctoral dissertation on the “thorough and efficient” system of education guaranteed by the New Jersey Constitution. Although the phrase was adopted in 1875, discussions about it are anything but dry as dust. In fact, the current Abbott v. Burke challenges turn on the issue of whether the state’s public schools are meeting both the letter and the spirit of the law.

Question: How did you get interested in this topic?

Answer: As a doctoral student in the late 1970’s and mid-1980’s at Rutgers University Graduate School of Education, I was taking a course in the History of American Education. One topic that was a source of concern in schools at the time, and was continually reported in the newspapers, related to state monitoring of what was nicknamed “T & E” (for “thorough and efficient”).

I learned a great deal that semester about the history of education. And I was finding out that T & E was much more than monitoring paperwork. Why was an amendment adopted by referendum in 1875 causing so much furor in the 1970’s? I decided to choose this topic to investigate further for my doctoral research.

Q: What did you find? Can you give a quick summary of how “thorough and efficient” education entered New Jersey’s lexicon?

A: Following the Civil War, New Jersey found itself to be a thriving business and manufacturing community. There was hope that schools could be improved by adopting theories and practices said to be useful in other states and countries. The large number of illiterate people in the state had been noted as a concern that would need to be dealt with if New Jersey were to compete economically in the new industrial age.

The enormous wave of immigration following the war was seen as both an opportunity for enhancing the economy as well as a challenge for the schools. The growth of business and industry demanded better-educated workers and managers.

Since the terms “thorough and efficient” had come to be part of the business lexicon for what was desirable, private academies began to advertise that they provided a “thorough and efficient” education. Public schools that could demonstrate both these qualities came to be viewed as models.

In 1873, it was decided to establish a Constitutional Commission to update the 1844 Constitution. This commission deliberated on how to improve public education. Despite the economic recession that gripped the country, New Jersey didn’t want to retrench in education. Actually, it saw enhancing education as a way to improve the economy in the emerging industrial society.

Members of the Constitutional Commission were able to agree only to provide a guarantee of a “rudimentary” education, and sent that wording to the New Jersey State Legislature as its recommendation. Members of the 1874 legislature who had been educated in New Jersey public high schools (in Morristown and Newark) felt that limiting what the state could provide to “rudimentary” would mean that some children would have more opportunity than others, depending on where they lived.

These legislators argued that the state’s schools should be as good as private academies, so that all children would have access to the best education. In 1874, the legislature voted to omit “rudimentary” and to say instead that the state would provide a “thorough and efficient” system of education.

This version of the education amendment was sent to the 1875 legislature, since changes in the constitution would have to be passed by two consecutive legislatures and then in a public statewide referendum.

Q: It was pretty bitterly fought. What forces were at work?

A: While the major newspapers urged citizens to come out to vote on the referendum, there seemed little interest. But when the Catholic Church and Catholic lay groups began to express opposition to certain of the changes, a furor arose.

The Catholic Church had been urging legislators to provide funding for Catholic schools, which were educating large numbers of immigrant children for whom there were insufficient seats in the public schools. In largely Protestant New Jersey, there was opposition to having separate schools for Catholics. One system for all was deemed “American,” and Catholic protests were ignored when they complained about Catholic children who attended public schools being required to listen to Protestant bible reading.

The Catholic Union circulated a letter stating that the education amendment would establish “an expensive system of Public Education utterly repugnant to them and which they cannot in good conscience use.” Catholic churches in Newark provided sample ballots with the education amendment crossed out.

Meanwhile, the Trenton State Gazette argued that Catholic opposition was a genuine threat to “our cherished free school system.” As fears grew that the “Catholic Church has declared open, but not treacherous war” against free public schools, a campaign ensued to get out the vote. While there had been little interest in the election before, the Newark Daily Advertiser reported that “Horses were saddled and ridden half the night to scatter [ballots] far and wide, and the effect at the polls the next day was astonishing.”
The amendments were approved by 400,000 votes.

Q: Jump forward. Why is what happened in 1875 still relevant today?

A In the 135 years since the adoption of the “T & E” clause, the amendment has been linked to a number of major educational issues in the state. Controversies have included:

  • What should be the nature and extent of state financing and control of public schools?
  • Can the state constitutionally permit the use of state school funds in local districts that are not equal throughout the state?
  • How should the claims of private and church-related schools for a share of public school financing be dealt with?
  • What is the extent of the state’s obligation to provide thorough and efficient educational opportunities “for all children”?
  • In the 1930’s, the Friends of Education decried inequitable financing as leading to “good schools for some of New Jersey’s children and poor ones for the others.” The Bateman Commission Report of 1968 concurred, stating that “rich counties got richer and the poorer counties became poorer in their ability to support public schools.” Great gaps in educational achievement could no longer be ignored.

    By the 1970’s, the state’s courts were playing an important role in interpreting the amendment. Robinson v. Cahill (1973, 1976) led to New Jersey’s income tax as a way to ensure that there would be more adequate state funding. Abbott v. Burke provided opportunities to examine a wide range of what would be needed to ensure equity for all of New Jersey’s children. It was decided that the state and its Department of Education would have to provide parity funding for Abbott districts, necessary supplemental programs, and adequate school facilities. In its final decision, the Court refused to set a dollar amount on what would be needed, but said that districts would have to ascertain their needs and submit these to the state.

    Today, New Jersey’s educational obligations for all of its children are being challenged by debates about a variety of issues, including state-supported vouchers for non-public schools (such as parochial schools); state cuts to districts despite what those districts say they need to provide a thorough and efficient education for all their students (including those with special needs); and cuts in funding for school facilities.

    Today, some see funding for education as a priority that we must afford (as in 1875). Others argue that because of the economy, we can’t afford to continue some of the programs that have proven successful in helping our children achieve.

    What I do know is that our state constitution continues to serve as a compelling force for those who believe that the T&E clause requires New Jersey to provide for the educational needs of all its children.

    Whether the current climate will result in lessening this commitment in real terms remains uncertain.

    We say, “Our children are the future.” We need to decide what that means for us.