When David Sciarra took over as executive director of the Education Law Center in 1996, he was brand new to the field of education law. Up to that point, his career had involved civil rights cases around homelessness and affordable housing.
In the nearly three decades since, Sciarra, 70, has led the New Jersey-based group through numerous local and state campaigns and court proceedings, all centered around agitating for states to ensure that low-income and other marginalized students have the same opportunities as their higher-income peers to receive a high-quality education.
He arrived at the organization midway through a protracted legal fight over school funding in New Jersey, known colloquially as the Abbott case, that resulted in a series of landmark court decisions about educational equity. At the urging of the courts, the state ultimately enacted programs for universal preschool, full state funding of school facilities improvements, and a per-pupil funding formula that provides a base amount for all students and additional dollars to address the greater needs of students from low-income families.
After leading similar legal efforts in numerous other states, Sciarra announced earlier this month that he will retire effective Jan. 31. He sat down last Friday with Education Week on Zoom to discuss his career, lessons from his successes and the challenges he’s faced, and advice for future generations of advocates for public schools.
Sciarra argues that much of the current conventional wisdom around equitable school funding stems from the precedents set by the Abbott reforms in New Jersey. And he argues for a relentless focus on the role of states in ensuring educational equity—a relevant insight as school funding lawsuits across the country continue to play out in dramatic and contentious fashion in states like Arizona, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wyoming.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
A lot has changed in the K-12 world since you joined the Education Law Center in 1996. What was happening when you started?
I was thrown into the fire almost immediately to deal with what were and are some of the most contentious issues in education policy. What does good school funding look like for districts that are highly segregated by poverty and race? What’s an adequate level of funding and resources when states consign, through their district boundaries, students to school districts that have to serve very high concentrations of student need? What about preschool—how do we get kids into programs early?
In 1996, the condition of New Jersey’s segregated urban districts was similar to what we still see in many high-poverty, racially isolated school districts in states across the country: huge disparities in funding and resources between poor districts and more affluent districts.
I was immediately involved in some tremendous and challenging proceedings. We had special masters, we went back to the court a bunch of times. We had to get new administrations to actually implement these remedies in a serious way.
The court directed the state to come up with legislation to finance school facilities construction, and following that, in 2002 the legislature enacted the best state school facilities program in the country. The state has to fund 100 percent of school construction. We’ve built close to 200 new schools in our urban districts. That is often a missing piece in the area of state responsibility for investing in public schools.
As a result of the court’s rulings and the advocacy efforts to implement those rulings sustained over 25 years now, New Jersey has, probably more than any other state, eliminated those gaps, equalized and created equity for school systems in districts that are high-poverty and racially isolated.
What’s the biggest lesson you learned about how school funding operates and what needs to change?
One of the things that comes out of the Abbott rulings that we need to take to heart across the country is the courts’ insistence that the state is responsible. The way district boundaries are drawn is controlled by the state. The level of resources available to spend on kids ultimately comes down to state legislatures. Whether kids get access to preschool, the condition of their school buildings—the districts are creatures of their state, set up by state law to execute the state’s responsibility.
What I think was the recipe for success is that we never lost sight of the state. The court’s decisions created leverage. They are critical for building the kind of political pressure and legal pressure to make some very difficult decisions that ultimately come down to money: raising money and allocating that money to the kids that need it the most.
I was insistent that we would not get distracted by all kinds of other problems at the district level or the school level. If we’re going to get anywhere in improving education opportunities for marginalized populations—for Black and Latino students, for homeless students, for low-income students, students with disabilities—we’ve gotta give up the notion of local control. It’s a tradition, not a legal construction. We’ve got to have an all-out assault on state governments to step up and fulfill their constitutional responsibilities.
What does that kind of advocacy look like?
We looked at four states that had successful school finance reform over the last 20-something years: Kansas, Washington, Massachusetts, and New Jersey. They all had litigation in some form or another. It was a useful tool in those advocacy campaigns. But litigation was clearly not the solution.
When the judicial branch got involved, whether there’s a court case or not, what we really found was the factor that led to their success were building strong and sustained political campaigns focused on state legislatures and governors for educational reform, and fighting against the many things that happen now in state legislatures that undermine equity. Full funding cuts is the biggest example. Now we have vouchers, which is siphoning off public tax dollars to unregulated private schooling.
We’ve got to have an all-out assault on state governments to step up and fulfill their constitutional responsibilities.
It includes a lot of defensive work. But it also has to include an aggressive reform agenda focused on what I would call the building blocks of equity.
One is adequate funding. If we don’t have adequate, sufficient funding, especially for high-poverty districts, all the reforms we talk about—the research about improving teacher quality, getting more guidance counselors—we know they’re not going to be able to go forward in a significant way. The resources simply aren’t there to carry them out over the long haul.
No. 2 is preschool. Kids have to start school at least at 4, if not at 3. We’ve got to get states to ensure that as part of the public education system, all kids have access to well-planned, high-quality preschool. All the other developed nations in their systems do that; we don’t.
The third piece is facility improvements. The condition of school buildings across the country is a national shame in many places. It’s just getting worse, especially with climate change and all the stress on buildings.
If equity is an area where the organization and others like it have made substantial progress since you started, what do you see as the next big front?
Breaking down state policies that create de facto segregation. State policies around fixed boundaries where kids have to attend school deprive all students of the opportunity to attend a school that’s racially diverse. To us, that’s part and parcel of what a constitutional education has to include today. The United States is fast approaching becoming a majority multi-racial country. These kids have to have the ability to get along and work with other people as adults who are of different races and cultures and socioeconomic backgrounds. That’s true for not just Black and Latino students, but white and Asian and everyone else as well. That is not a peripheral matter or something nice to have.
The other side of the coin is the federal government. We spend a tremendous amount of advocacy energy, policy energy, research, focused on the federal government in the hopes that somehow the federal government is going to come in and be able to give kids what they need. We have to be very clear-eyed and sober about the fact that we do not have a national right to education. We are an outlier among all developed nations in the world.
We need to overhaul federal policy so the whole focus is on using federal dollars in incentives to move states to improve adequacy and equity in their systems.
The idea that the federal government is going to solve our educational problems is equally misguided as the idea that school districts can do it on their own. We spend a lot of energy at each end of the spectrum. We let the states off the hook.
How long does it take to create the kind of sustained change you’re talking about?
The fight for educational equity never ends. It’s year to year and it’s ongoing. You can start to make progress on equity, and in one legislative session you can lose it all. The key point at which educational equity is on the table in states is around their annual or in some states biennial state budgets. You can get a new state funding formula—Illinois has one, but it’s $7 billion short. It’s nice on the books. But when the rubber hits the road for kids, is the legislature going to build in the required increases that are necessary to get to adequacy?
It’s a historical project, it’s not a one-off. It will never end. Even if you make substantial progress, you’ve got to always be prepared to defend it.