Abbott v. Suburbs, the Next School Funding Struggle?

Supreme Court orders more funding for high-poverty schools but suburbs look for help, too

Credit: John O'Boyle/Star Ledger
Justice Jaynee LaVecchia
The ghost of three decades of Abbott v. Burke litigation hovered over the state Supreme Court’s 21st Abbott ruling yesterday. It was evident in the divided and defiant ruling that strictly addressed only the 31 original Abbott districts. And it was equally evident in the tensions that almost immediately surfaced concerning other urban and suburban districts that are also calling for financial relief.

In fact, the fate of “non-Abbott” districts may well represent the real challenge of the next five weeks run-up to the budget vote. They don’t want to be left out, and the court has made it clear that money won’t be coming from the latest Abbott decision.

Moving quickly, Senate President Stephen Sweeney has already indicated that he is committed to finding the money “that will ensure proper funding for the state’s 205 underfunded districts.”

But Gov. Chris Christie has gone on record as saying that he will not raise taxes to fund the Abbott decision, leaving less chance that he will do so to help out other underfunded districts.

The Court’s Decision

In a narrowly divided 3-2 opinion, the court’s majority ruled that the Christie administration and the legislature had violated schoolchildren’s constitutional rights to a “thorough and efficient” education when they cut $1 billion in state aid this year.

But in what may be the biggest surprise of the 59-page opinion written by Associate Justice Jaynee LaVecchia, the court ordered money only be restored — in the amount of about $500 million — to the 31 high-poverty districts that until 2009 had long been the center of the case.

In the 2009 ruling, the court had upheld the School Funding Reform Act (SFRA), which all but eliminated the Abbott designation and extended funding to all districts with low-income and other special-needs students.

LaVecchia maintained that the court’s majority felt that it only had jurisdiction over the original Abbott districts, including Newark, Camden and Paterson.

“Only they have the historic finding of constitutional deprivation and only they were the beneficiaries of the remedial orders that the State asked us to switch for the SFRA funding,” LaVecchia wrote.

But there was no consensus as to who should be covered, even within the three-member majority. Associate Justice Barry Albin agreed with the overall ruling but wrote a concurring opinion to extend the remedy to all districts that fell short of the state’s model for “adequacy,” or roughly 200, by last count.

“The at-risk children in the… underfunded non-Abbott districts suffer from the same disadvantages of poverty as the children in the former Abbott districts,” Albin wrote.

That sentiment may prove prescient, at least politically, since the court’s Abbott focus immediately sparked old urban-suburban tensions and became the center of attention for Democrats and the target of criticism for Republicans.

Another $500 Million

The Democrats, led by Sweeney, came out quickly to say additional money should be applied to all 205 districts that are deemed spending less than “adequate” amount as deemed by the SFRA model. That would add approximately $500 million on top of the $500 million ordered by the court.

“As Senate President, I am committed to bringing all underfunded districts up to the adequacy standard,” Sweeney said in a statement.

The Republicans, led by Christie, cited the court’s Abbott-centric ruling as yet another in a long line from the court that he said were based on “bad education policy, bad fiscal policy and I believe an unconstitutional breach into legislative prerogative.”

“The idea that this $500 million is going to make any marked difference in a system where we are already spending $4.5 billion to the Abbott districts,” he said. “Another half-billion will put them over the top? It just doesn’t make sense to me,” he added.

The ruling in some ways served Christie well. It didn’t break the bank, and it provided him more fodder for his case against what he has termed an activist court — one to which he could be naming three new justices during this term. (The lone sitting judge up for reappointment, Associate Justice Helen Hoens, did little to hurt her own chances, providing one of the two dissenting votes.)

He was also quick to pass the next move to the legislature, saying the “constitutional ball was in their court.” Still, his deferring to the legislature is sure not to last long, as what happens next provides steep challenges to both the Democrats and Republicans, especially during an election year.

At a hastily called press conference in the Statehouse, Christie did say — several times — that he will comply with the order, something that was not always a certainty. But he also repeated there and especially later in a Cherry Hill town hall meeting that he would not support a tax increase to pay the bill.

There is room with the latest revenue estimates for the additional $500 million, if it even comes to that much, but adding on the full list of 205 districts that Sweeney is talking about starts getting expensive.

Those districts include suburban, rural and urban alike, from both Republican and Democratic enclaves. They include poor schools and blue-collar ones like Rahway and Carteret, as well as more affluent districts in Bernards Township, Westfield and Middletown.

Mounting Tensions

In the meantime, the tensions were already surfacing yesterday from non-Abbott districts. One dissent came from a superintendent who had been part of the Abbott case in the hope that that court would extend protections to beyond just the Abbott districts.

Piscataway superintendent Robert Copeland had been a witness for both the state and the plaintiffs before a fact-finding hearing, saying that cuts had led to reductions in the programs that targeted at-risk students.

About a third of his Middlesex County district is students who are poor enough to qualify for subsidized lunch, and Piscataway is a district ripe for more aid under SFRA. But by mid-afternoon yesterday, Copeland was incredulous: “It’s official. Now all three branches of government do not want to do what is right and sensible.

“I just don’t get it,” he continued. “I can’t understand the logic that the court upholds SFRA and the concept that there are at-risk student who need help separate from the Abbotts, and then in the next breath they say, ‘It’s not our problem.’ ”

And when told of the Sweeney’s pledge – and from others as well — to provide additional funding to districts like his own, Copeland was not ready to celebrate.

“This Legislature has shown no taste for supporting adequacy,” he said. “Now we are leaving it up to them to try again?”

Others in suburban districts showed a mix of reactions, some lamenting the state of school funding in general and others the court’s decision in particular.

“While I believe that every child in New Jersey deserves a good education, we need to make the districts that receive the lion’s share of state aid more accountable,” Westfield Board of Education member Ann Cary told “We need to see results in those districts.”

It was more resignation from Frank Calabria, president of the Parsippany-Troy Hills Board of Education, also in an interview with “I wish some of the money would come to districts like ours, but that is the way it goes.”
The chief lawyer for the Education Law Center, the Newark-based advocacy group that led the Abbott litigation, said the state needs to address these suburban concerns quickly.

“There is room to maneuver outside the Abbotts to target the funding to where it is needed most,” said David Sciarra, the ELC’s executive director who argued the case before the court.

Sciarra said he was not surprised that the court limited the decisions to the Abbott districts, not after the oral arguments when the issue of exactly whom Sciarra represented was the first question from LaVecchia and Albin.

“We tried everything we could to try to get them to stick to the 2009 decision (that extended beyond Abbott), but the court decided it was legally constrained by the four corners of the Abbott case,” he said.