Law & Courts

McGreevey Creates Panel To Iron Out Abbott Wrinkles

By Catherine Gewertz — February 27, 2002 5 min read
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Ushering in what he called a new age of cooperation, New Jersey Gov. James E. McGreevey signed an executive order last week designed to ease the rocky implementation of billions of dollars in court-ordered improvements in the state’s poorest school districts.

Signed Feb. 19 in a Trenton elementary school auditorium full of children, the order creates a seven-member commission composed of the leaders of key state government departments responsible for overseeing a series of far-reaching court decisions in the landmark case known as Abbott v. Burke.

The Democratic governor, in office only five weeks, hailed the new body as a practical and symbolic step away from an era of foot-dragging that has slowed delivery of court-ordered rehabilitation and construction projects and frustrated school administrators who had hoped for quicker action.

“The Abbott decision, morally and legally, represents sound educational policy,” Mr. McGreevey said in an interview. “Unfortunately, as New Jersey was mired in endless debate, the state lost a generation of children to, in certain instances, substandard schooling. The state itself ought not be an impediment to the implementation of Abbott.

The Abbott case began in 1981 as a lawsuit by students in impoverished districts. Over time, it spiraled into what many have called the country’s most expansive legal case involving the adequacy of public education. In a series of Abbott rulings, the New Jersey Supreme Court has ordered the state to address deficiencies in its 30 poorest districts, which serve about 22 percent of the state’s 1.3 million schoolchildren. (“N.J.'s ‘Whole School’ Approach Found Hard for Districts,” Feb. 21. 2001.)

Most notable, perhaps, is the extraordinary detail of those orders, which spell out what must happen in those poor districts in order for the state to comply with its constitution. For example, the high court said, per-pupil funding in the lowest-spending districts must be on a par with spending in the state’s most affluent districts, and the state must provide preschool for 54,000 3- and 4-year-olds in the Abbott schools.

Required school renovation and construction projects are projected to cost more than $6 billion.

Abbott articulated an incredible policy direction,” said Bari A. Erlichson, a professor of public policy at Rutgers University who has tracked Abbott decisions. “The decisions piece together what are usually disparate pieces of policy and build this incredibly detailed vision of what schooling should look like in underserved communities.”

But putting those various pieces together has been anything but easy. Abbott proponents became particularly critical of the state’s Republican leadership from 1994 to 2002, charging Republican administrations with lacking the will to push the mandates and balking at their costs.

In the court and in the media, the state’s GOP leaders have repeatedly defended their efforts while reminding critics of the unprecedented magnitude of the job that has been handed to the state.

Two years ago, the state’s high court expressed the hope that the “adversarial relationship between the parties will give way to a cooperative effort.”

Cooperation Sought

Even before taking office, Mr. McGreevey made it clear to Abbott advocates that he wanted to foster the cooperative environment that would make the court’s orders work. His approach is giving Abbott plaintiffs new hope.

“With the stroke of a pen, cooperation replaces distrust, collaboration replaces control, and consensus-building replaces uni-lateral action by the state,” said David G. Sciarra, the executive director of the Education Law Center, a Newark-based, public-interest law firm representing the Abbott plaintiffs. “We can now shift our commitment to the children, and our collective energy and talents from courtroom to classroom, exactly where they should be.”

In addition, less than a month after Mr. McGreevey took office, his new commissioner of education, William Librera, created the post of assistant commissioner of education for Abbott programs. He chose longtime urban school reformer Gordon MacInnes for the job.

“This executive order is further confirmation of a shift in the landscape, of a sea change,” Mr. MacInnes, a former Democratic state senator, said in an interview. “What we’ve learned from years of litigation is that the court can set the highest entitlement for poor children that it chooses to, and if the governor doesn’t want to implement those remedies, it doesn’t make much difference. There’s a need for coordination that only a governor’s office can provide.”

Mr. MacInnes, Mr. Librera, and Mr. Sciarra are all members of the governor’s new commission. The state’s attorney general, its commissioner of human services, and the executive directors of its Economic Development Authority and Commission on Higher Education also are on the panel.

The group will meet monthly.

Lucille Davy, the governor’s special counsel on education, said council members will have to tackle the thorny, practical side of enacting the court’s orders. For instance, what is the best way for the state to certify hundreds of preschool teachers, and how will it prioritize, schedule, and monitor the many building renovations and constructions Abbott entails?

Abbott schools also were required to adopt whole-school-reform models, and council members will have to wrestle with ways to make sure those models are working well and align with New Jersey standards, she said.

Pablo Clausell, the superintendent of one of the Abbott districts—the 8,500- student Perth Amboy schools in central New Jersey—said he welcomed the council. He expressed frustration about navigating state bureaucracy, yet never getting the construction of additional preschool space he has been promised. His district serves 950 3- and 4-year-olds, but with the new facilities, it could serve another 700 students whose families must find preschool elsewhere if they want it.

“We have been going back and forth with different departments without getting any straight answers,” Mr. Clausell said.

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A version of this article appeared in the February 27, 2002 edition of Education Week as McGreevey Creates Panel To Iron Out Abbott Wrinkles

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