Explainer: Abbott v. Burke, Changing the Rules for Funding Schools

John Mooney | July 23, 2013 | Education, Explainer
A series of state Supreme Court rulings starting in 1985, Abbott v. Burke continues to shape and reshape education -- especially for New Jersey's poorest kids

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The state Supreme Court’s landmark school-equity rulings starting in 1985, referred to in shorthand as “Abbott,” as in Abbott district or Abbott school. Actually a series of decisions made over the past 30 years, Abbott remains the centerpiece of how the state funds its urban and suburban schools. Abbott’s core principle is to ensure that schools in 31 of the New Jersey’s poorest communities receive the “thorough and efficient” system of education guaranteed by the state constitution.

What it means

With a legal history dating back to the early 1970s, the Abbott rulings remain one of the most important set of decisions on school equity in the country and are still a major force in New Jersey. It was Abbott that led to universal preschool in the state’s poorest districts, the state’s massive school construction and renovation program, and the addition of extra programs and funding for the disadvantaged initiatives in and outside Abbott schools.

Recent decisions

In 2009, the court ruled as part of its Abbott v. Burke deliberations that the state’s existing school funding formula met its constitutional standards under Abbott, and then two years later in 2011, ordered that Gov. Chris Christie and the Legislature had to provide an additional $477 million to Abbott districts to meet the provisions of the funding law.

The Abbott districts

  • Asbury Park
  • Bridgeton
  • City of Burlington
  • Camden City
  • East Orange
  • Elizabeth
  • Garfield
  • Gloucester City
  • Harrison
  • Hoboken
  • Irvington
  • Jersey City
  • Keansburg
  • Long Branch
  • Millville
  • Neptune
  • New Brunswick
  • Newark
  • Orange
  • Passaic City
  • Paterson
  • Pemberton
  • Perth Amboy
  • Phillipsburg
  • Plainfield
  • Pleasantville
  • Salem City
  • Trenton
  • Union City
  • Vineland
  • West New York
  • A little history

    Abbott dates back to an earlier case in the 1970s, Robinson v. Cahill, in which the court’s order for sufficient funding led the Legislature to enact New Jersey’s first income tax to help fund the state’s poorest schools.

    Who’s Abbott and Burke?

    The original class-action suit was filed on behalf of 20 families from Camden, East Orange, Irvington, and Jersey City. The alphabetical list of plaintiffs started with Raymond Abbott, a Camden City student at the time. The defendant was Fred G. Burke, the state’s education commissioner first appointed by former Gov. Brendan Byrne.

    Today’s key players

    Abbott put the Newark-based Education Law Center on the map as arguably the state’s strongest and most outspoken advocate for low-income students and schools, a position it still enjoys.

    The center is headed up by David Sciarra, its executive director and frequent antagonist of governors — especially the current one. Christie remains hostile to the Abbott decision, and the governor has vowed to remake the state Supreme Court and ultimately reverse its decrees.

    Key decisions and documents

    Abbott II (June, 1990): Court finds funding disparity between rich and poor districts violates constitutional guarantee of a “thorough and efficient” system of education.

    Abbott V (May 1998): Court orders preschool and school reforms and building construction and repairs.

    [link:http://www.edlawcenter.org/assets/files/pdfs/abott-v-burke/Abbott_XX.pdf|Abbott XX (May 2009): Court finds existing School Funding Reform Act constitutional.

    Abbott XXI (May 2011): Court orders the state to fully fund SFRA (School Funding Reform Act) for the Abbott districts