Special Report
Law & Courts

A Level Playing Field

By Catherine Gewertz — January 04, 2005 14 min read
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To Joseph M. Ferraina, one need only cruise this humble seaside town, and then its hyper-posh neighbors, to understand why New Jersey desperately needed the school finance lawsuit that has delivered billions of dollars to the state’s poorest districts. “Just look at that,” he says as he steers his car past low-rise public-housing projects in Long Branch, where he has been the schools superintendent for 10 years. Within minutes, he is passing the massive homes and manicured lawns of adjoining Deal. “It’s a tale of two cities.”

Financial Evolution
Making Every Dollar Count
The Bottom Line
A Level Playing Field
Targeted Spending
Elusive Answers
Table of Contents

Ferraina, the Argentine-immigrant son of a custodian, sees the Abbott v. Burke case as justice for the most underprivileged of children. In just seven years, it has transformed his district, he says, by expanding the educational opportunities of a needy student population.

Five of Long Branch’s nine schools are being replaced, and all have undergone millions of dollars in health- and safety-related upgrades. Ninety-four percent of the 3- and 4-year-olds in the district—more than 750 children—are taking advantage of the free full-day preschool program now available, and early test results suggest the program is boosting their skills in kindergarten and 1st grade.

Whole-school reform models, or schoolwide strategies to overhaul instruction and management, are in place in all Long Branch schools and seem to be improving test scores. In 2001, 74 percent of the district’s 4th graders in general education passed the state’s language arts test. In 2004, 85 percent passed, though that proportion still trailed the state average of 90 percent.

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Chart: Plaintiff Victory

In one of 10 Abbott decisions, the New Jersey Supreme Court said that the state’s poorest students need an education “beyond the norm.” Ferraina believes that focus is well-placed. Seven in 10 of his 5,000 students come from poverty, which he believes justifies the elevated investment the state has been obligated to make in his district.

“These children need a better education more than the ones over here,” Ferraina says, gesturing toward one of Long Branch’s affluent neighbors. “The American dream is based on a good, free education, and the resources of Abbott can make that happen for these kids.”

Policymakers and observers on all sides of school funding debates nationwide watch the Abbott case closely as a test of whether raising spending levels in poor districts to parity with the wealthiest can significantly improve achievement for students from low-income families. Activists also use it as a case study of how a court’s deep involvement in schools’ inner workings has benefits—or limits.

In response to a 1970 lawsuit known as Robinson v. Cahill, and to the 1981 Abbott case, the New Jersey Supreme Court struck down incarnations of the state’s school finance formula four times from 1973 to 1997. In Abbott, the high court took the unique step of ordering the state to ensure that public schools in the poorest urban districts are able to spend at the same level as those in the wealthiest suburbs.

‘No Excuse’

The court’s 1998 blueprint also is unusual for being highly detailed and prescriptive.

The court mandated that all elementary schools adopt whole-school reform models, with Success for All as the presumptive model, though others were permitted. The court mandated full-day kindergarten and preschool, broad social-service programs, enhanced school security and technology, high school dropout programs, and smaller class sizes, as well as a major facilities program to overhaul subpar buildings.

Additional programs, such as summer school, could receive funding with demonstrated need, the court said.

“We must reach the point,” the unanimous court wrote in 1998, “where it is possible to say with confidence that the most disadvantaged schoolchildren in the state will not be left out or left behind.”

Few disagree that the 31 so-called Abbott districts need extra state help.

When the class action was filed on behalf of New Jersey schoolchildren, the state’s poorest districts were spending 40 percent less than its wealthiest ones. Now, with huge infusions of court-required state aid, the Abbott districts are spending about $13,000 per pupil, very nearly what the richest districts spend.

That parity of spending, advocates and critics alike contend, can’t help but yield results that will inform—or at least fuel—the national debate about how far money and state policy can go in closing the performance gap between privileged and underprivileged children.

“We have the resources, so there can be no excuse for not doing it. Period,” says Gordon A. MacInnes, who in 2002 assumed the newly created post of assistant state commissioner of education for Abbott implementation.

Local administrators in Trenton say that providing all of their district’s 14,000 children what they need is a work in progress.

Half the district’s 24 buildings are being renovated, expanded, or replaced. Experimentation with seven models of whole-school reform has settled into a customized approach, in which schools employ the elements of the models they find useful. The experience has helped the district build school leadership and spark valuable critical thinking about curriculum and practice, says Superintendent James M. Lytle.

Elementary school students’ performance has improved, and an extensive dropout-recovery program has raised Trenton’s high school enrollment by 50 percent and tripled the graduation rate. But in middle school, performance has declined, leading to more soul-searching about what changes need to be made, Lytle says.

Lytle believes Abbott is making promising things possible in his district, though he and his staff know they have a longer road to travel.

“Is Abbott working? It’s too early to tell,” he says. “There is lots of strong evidence, and I’m praying the legislature and the New Jersey electorate hold the course. To my mind, this is the most important experiment in urban schooling, in trying to educate minority and poor students, that there has ever been.”

Seven years into New Jersey’s bid to put poor districts on a financial footing with the wealthy, the Abbott districts offer a mixture of promise and struggle.

Gauging Gains

The state’s 4th grade language arts test for general education students shows those in Abbott districts improving at a faster rate than students statewide, and those in the worst-performing Abbott districts—where state administrators have been conducting intensive intervention in literacy skills—improving faster still.

Abbott districts improved their average passing rate on that test from 62.6 percent to 75.4 percent—nearly 13 percentage points—between 2001 and 2004, compared with the state’s 5-percentage-point gain.

But Abbott districts’ average passing rate still lags well below the state average of 90 percent.

Academic improvements in Abbott middle and high schools, at least as measured by test scores, have generally been more elusive. But officials note that the state supreme court’s decisions focused heavily on elementary school remedies and said little about middle and high school.

<i>Abbott</i> districts' average passing rate still lags well below the state average of 90 percent.

The state is now engaged in designing reform plans to bolster achievement in Abbott districts at those levels.

Fred Carrigg, the state’s special assistant commissioner for urban literacy, characterizes the Abbott districts’ progress as promising and significant. Working intensively with students and districts that have long lacked the tools to succeed does not yield big results quickly, but builds crucial capacity, he says.

State officials and school advocates theorize that the 4th grade tests are the first evidence that the court’s mandates on whole-school reform are beginning to pay off. But some experts say that because some schools and districts have had more success with whole-school improvement than others, and no state evaluation has been performed, ascertaining exactly what is working and why is tricky.

“We really don’t know what elements hold the weight of this improvement. It’s unbelievably difficult to figure this thing out,” says Bari A. Erlichson, an education consultant and former Rutgers University professor of public policy who studies Abbott.

In one recent report, Erlichson found that implementation of whole-school reform models in Abbott districts was hampered by inadequate support from the models’ developers and districts.

She also cited a flawed process at the school level that gave teachers too little information and voice in selecting reform models, and noted waning state support for the whole-school reform approach, among other factors. By June 2004, she found, scores of Abbott schools were terminating their contracts with developers of reform models.

Abbott’s preschool mandates are changing the education landscape in many New Jersey districts. Preschool enrollment in the Abbott districts has more than doubled from 19,000 in the 1999-2000 school year, the year the program began, to a projected 43,000 in 2004-05, or more than 80 percent of the 3- and 4-year-olds in those districts. Some districts, such as Long Branch, have conceived their own programs, while others, such as Trenton, rely largely on community providers. Some use a mix.

Preschool Progress

Early-childhood experts say the court case has improved services in the Abbott districts by requiring all New Jersey preschool teachers to have a bachelor’s degree and early-childhood certification. The state developed such a certification in response to the rulings, designed standards for program content and quality, and provided scholarships to preschool teachers so they could complete their college degrees.

It also took steps to ensure that teachers in private-provider preschool programs were paid on the same scale as those in district-run programs, though better benefits packages offered by district programs still tend to tilt employment scales their way.

More than 92 percent of the teachers in Abbott preschool programs now hold bachelor’s degrees, a far better-qualified preschool workforce than is seen nationally. Only an estimated one-third to one half of U.S. teachers in early-childhood programs are similarly educated, according to a study by Sharon Ryan and Debra J. Ackerman of the National Institute for Early Education Research, based at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.

“What’s happened with preschool in New Jersey is merely revolutionary,” says Cynthia Rice, a senior policy analyst with the Association for Children in New Jersey, a Newark-based advocacy group. “Before Abbott, anyone with a high school diploma could teach preschool.”

Studies of the preschool program suggest that while quality varies, and the children’s skills still do not match national averages when they enter kindergarten, New Jersey preschoolers have made great strides, especially in their oral-language and early-literacy skills.

Another major piece of the finance case was a court mandate that the state upgrade school facilities in Abbott districts.

The high court’s requirement that all Abbott districts have safe buildings has produced $660 million in repairs, such as replacement of leaky roofs and removal of asbestos. More than 500 renovations, additions, or new buildings are planned, with more than 200 in some stage of approval, design, or construction.

A dozen projects have been completed so far. All 500-plus of the planned projects will be completely state-financed. The original law passed in 2000 to pay for the court mandate authorized $6 billion in spending in the Abbott districts, but experts believe the price tag could easily double by the time the projects are finished.

However grand the scale of New Jersey’s attempt to improve the lot of urban schoolchildren, there are those who remain skeptical that it is the right path.

‘Difficult Political Calculus’

Some observers point out that seven years of near-parity in spending between rich and poor districts has not yet closed the performance gap between them, and ask whether the supreme court’s package of remedies, and intimate involvement, can do so.

Abbott is the poster child for court-run schools,” says Eric A. Hanushek, a senior scholar at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. “They’ve been doing this for 30 years, and what is the evidence that any of it has impacted student achievement?”

Some experts worry that support for the court-mandated remedies could erode because of the way the cost basis was determined—linking it to spending in the wealthiest districts, rather than calculating what it actually costs to provide the needed services.

“It fails to build support for the Abbott districts, and public understanding of what education costs,” says Erlichson. “It looks like a huge gift to them, rather than a number based on need.”

Even MacInnes, the assistant commissioner in charge of Abbott implementation and a former Democratic state senator, says that spending just over half the state’s annual $8 billion pre-K-12 education budget on the Abbott districts—which enroll 22 percent of its 1.4 million schoolchildren—makes for “a difficult political calculus.”

'We look at what we have and divide it up, because we lack the political will to look at what we need and find out what it costs.'

Craig A. Stanley, the Democratic chairman of the state Assembly’s education committee, says New Jersey should overhaul funding statewide to reduce its reliance on property taxes to support schools. “We do it totally wrong,” he says. “We look at what we have and divide it up, because we lack the political will to look at what we need and find out what it costs.”

National experts in school finance note that the Abbott case was among the first to inquire into what services were required to mitigate the effects of poverty, and to outline how the money would be used, instead of focusing only on whether there was enough money. But they criticize the two-tiered funding system that it created: one for the 31 Abbott districts, another for the state’s 562 other districts.

“It creates two groups of districts that vie with each other,” says John G. Augenblick, a Denver-based consultant who has helped states redesign their financing formulas. “What you need is a unified, single system that would use the same procedures for each district to determine state aid.”

Apart from divisions over the Abbott remedies, the way New Jersey finances schools has sparked anger and litigation.

A group of middle-wealth school districts sued the state in 1998, contending that the state formula demanded too high a local share for schools, and drove those districts’ property taxes to unreasonable levels. A court dismissed the suit, saying such an action should be filed by taxpayers, not districts. But resentment about inequitable financing remains.

Ronald E. Bolandi, the superintendent of the East Windsor Regional schools, a central New Jersey, middle-income district of 4,700 students, says his community lacks the tax base of its wealthier counterparts, and doesn’t get the added state aid that the Abbott districts do. As a result, the district had to raise property taxes by an average of $400 per homeowner last year.

Only 26 percent of Bolandi’s budget comes from state funds, compared with 82 percent in Trenton, an Abbott district 10 miles away. East Windsor Regional spends $10,200 per pupil annually, compared with $13,500 in Trenton, the state capital.“Our parents need full-day preschool and kindergarten, too,” Bolandi says. “Abbott districts have those things, but I can’t afford them.”

Low-income districts not classified as Abbott districts suffer from the inability to generate revenue, but also from their residents’ severely limited ability to pay higher taxes, says Frederick A. Jacob, a lawyer for eight rural districts seeking to be designated as Abbott districts.

‘Tooting Our Horn’

He complains that in defining “special needs” districts as urban, Abbott overlooks needs in rural areas that equal or exceed those in urban areas.

Jacob cites the example of Commercial Township, a district in southern New Jersey, which had $145,212 worth of taxable property per child in the 1999-2000 school year, compared with nearby Millville, an Abbott district, with $173,346.

“These districts are the poorest of the poor, with some of the highest poverty rates in the state,” he says, “yet they’re not getting the funds—so they don’t have as good buildings, they lose faculty to other districts that can pay more, and many times their class sizes are horrible.”

Gary W. Ritter, an associate professor of education and public policy at the University of Arkansas who has studied Abbott’s financial impact on New Jersey districts, found that middle-income districts and low-income non-Abbott districts have higher tax rates than Abbott or wealthy districts, yet still end up with less money. The roots of the inequities, he says, lie not in the court mandates, but in the state’s aid system.

“There continue to be ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ in the school finance scheme,” said a 2001 paper he co-wrote on the subject for the Journal of Education Finance. “Only the faces have changed.”

David G. Sciarra, the lead attorney for the schoolchildren in the Abbott case, agrees that the near future must hold a reckoning when the state stares down the inequities of its finance system and finds a way to provide for all children the same high-quality programs from which Abbott children are benefiting.

But he believes the state “ought to be celebrating, tooting our horn,” for doing what few states have done: assuring adequate resources for children in the poorest districts. “We’ve almost done it,” he says. “Now we have to finish the job, to become a state in which we can say that every kid, not just in the Abbotts, but everywhere, has what they need.”

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