Law & Courts

N.J.'s Top Court Wrestles Anew With Funding Issue

By Catherine Gewertz — October 06, 2008 5 min read
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New Jersey leaders have asked the state’s highest court to set aside a family of landmark rulings that have funneled billions of dollars into efforts to improve schooling for low-income urban districts. The officials argue that their new school funding formula offers a fairer way of supporting all children in the state.

Big questions hinge on a decision by the New Jersey Supreme Court, which heard arguments in Trenton last month involving the long-running case of Abbott v. Burke.

Among them: Is urban poverty unique, requiring discrete funding and programmatic support, as the court has mandated for more than a decade? Without that support, will big-city schoolchildren slip further behind? And will the new formula sufficiently address high need, whether in tiny towns or big cities?

The five justices who heard arguments Sept. 22 were considering the state’s motion to set aside most of the key Abbott rulings and declare the new formula, approved by the legislature in January, constitutional. They did not indicate when they would rule, and they held out the distinct possibility of sending the motion to a trial court for a full hearing. (“New Funding Formula in N.J. Faces Hurdles,” Jan. 16, 2008.)

The name of Raymond Arthur Abbott, a boy from a poor Camden family, has come to symbolize the needs of all urban schoolchildren in New Jersey since the class action bearing his name was filed in 1981. The lawsuit contended that the state’s funding system shortchanged urban students. Fred G. Burke, then the state education commissioner, was named the lead defendant.

More than a dozen Abbott rulings over 27 years changed the landscape of school finance in New Jersey. The litigation brought about the creation of a two-tiered system ensuring that children in the state’s 31 poorest districts—specially designated Abbott districts—receive funding equivalent to that in the state’s richest. It also assured that they get revamped buildings, school improvement programs, free preschool, and a wraparound net of social services.

Though student performance in Abbott districts still lags behind state averages, the program is credited with facilitating academic progress and has produced a preschool program cited as a national model. (“A Level Playing Field,” Jan. 6, 2005.)

But Abbott’s cost became increasingly divisive in recent years, as soaring property taxes aggravated resentment in middle-income districts and poor rural districts, which have to make do with less per-pupil aid than Abbott and wealthy districts get. Twenty percent of the state’s 1.4 million students live in Abbott districts, but they get more than half of New Jersey’s $7.8 billion annual education budget.

Two years ago, a committee that studied education funding for a special legislative session aimed at cutting property taxes recommended that the Abbott designation be wiped out in favor of one unified funding system. (“N.J. Panel Eyes Changes in School Funding,” Nov. 29, 2006.)

Timeline of a Lawsuit

Abbott v. Burke: The New Jersey Supreme Court continues to weigh the issue of school funding in connection with a long-running court case involving urban education.

1981: Abbott v. Burke is filed by the Education Law Center, a public-interest law firm, claiming that for urban schoolchildren, New Jersey’s school funding law violates the state’s constitutional guarantee of a “thorough and efficient” system of public education. Raymond Arthur Abbott, a Camden boy, is named the lead plaintiff in the class action, and the state’s education commissioner at the time, Fred G. Burke, the lead defendant.

1985: The New Jersey Supreme Court issues the first Abbott decision, ordering that the case be tried, and finding that the state must ensure that urban schoolchildren have an education on a par with their suburban peers’.

1988: Trial judge finds for the plaintiff children and recommends overhauling the way the state funds urban schools.

1990: State supreme court requires New Jersey to equalize funding between suburban and urban districts and provide supplemental programs to mitigate the disadvantages of poverty.

1994: Supreme court declares the state’s 1990 funding system unconstitutional for urban schoolchildren.

1997: Supreme court declares the state’s 1996 funding system unconstitutional for urban schoolchildren and orders the state to fund urban schools on a par with suburban schools. The state does so for the first time in 1997-98.

1998: Supreme court orders a broad array of school reform, facilities, and social-service improvements in Abbott districts.

2006: Legislative committee recommends that New Jersey eliminate the Abbott designation in favor of one statewide funding formula.

2007: Gov. Jon S. Corzine introduces a funding formula that eliminates the Abbott designation and assigns extra funding to disadvantaged students wherever they live.

January 2008: New Jersey legislature approves new school funding formula.

March 2008: The state files a motion asking the New Jersey Supreme Court to declare the new formula constitutional and set aside the Abbott rulings.

Sept. 22, 2008: Supreme court hears arguments on the state’s request.

Sources: Education Law Center, Education Week

The new formula, forged after public hearings and months of consultation with educators and school finance experts, drew criticism from advocates for urban districts. They said its calculations far underestimate the cost of the programs needed to raise achievement for poor children. Advocates for special education also objected because the formula shifts more responsibility for that funding to local districts.

The state insists that the extra “weights”—dollars—it assigns to children from low-income families, those learning English, students in special education, and other groups deemed to face particular challenges ensure that all needy children will get the necessary support.

“Under the old system, if you lived in one of [the Abbott] communities, whether you were rich or poor, you got those resources,” Commissioner of Education Lucille E. Davy said in an interview last week. “If you were poor and lived somewhere else, you didn’t. This tries to bring more-equitable resource distribution to all children regardless of where they live.”

In arguing the state’s case before the high court, Assistant Attorney General Robert Gilson said the new formula affords plenty for Abbott districts. This year, they will get 54 percent of the state’s education spending, more than $17,000 per pupil, while even wealthy districts will get closer to $14,000, he said.

Mr. Gilson also noted that the new formula allows for expansion of free preschool to all low-income 3- and 4-year-olds statewide, and addresses a key past concern of the court by costing out the amounts required for all students to master the state’s academic-content standards.

“It’s not just another step,” Mr. Gilson said in a video available online. “This is a new chapter in school funding in New Jersey.”

David G. Sciarra, the lead lawyer representing Abbott schoolchildren, told the court that the new formula threatens “serious negative consequences” for urban students because it carries no guarantee of sufficient baseline funding after this year, so districts see deep cuts as inevitable. The formula also does not mandate the programs and supports the court deemed necessary to combat the disadvantages that undermined students’ achievement, Mr. Sciarra said.

“Now is not the time for this court to back away from its long-standing commitment to these children,” he said.

In court papers, Mr. Gilson argued that demographic changes warrant a redistribution of money. In the mid-1980s, 70 percent of the state’s African-American and Latino students—typically deemed to be “at risk”—attended school in poor urban districts, but now more than half reside outside those districts, he said.

In a friend-of-the-court brief filed in support of the Abbott schoolchildren, two civil rights groups—the New Jersey Black Issues Convention, and the Hispanic Directors Association of New Jersey—acknowledged that more black and Latino children now attend schools outside the Abbott districts because there are proportionally fewer white children and more black and Latino children in the state.

But they said Abbott districts—with an 88 percent minority enrollment, compared with 33 percent in the state’s other districts—still need special funding and programs because they have disproportionately high concentrations of students from poor families and ethnic minority groups, who have tended to lag in achievement.

Bruce D. Baker, a school finance expert and an associate professor of education at Rutgers University’s graduate school of education in New Brunswick, N.J., said that in theory, a well-designed, unified system with appropriate weights offers the chance of addressing all the “gradients” of need among schoolchildren. But he believes the weights and resources of New Jersey’s new formula are unlikely to do so.

Since Abbott is a nationally watched case in school finance circles, the state high court’s action could send an important signal to other states that have tracked New Jersey’s unusually progressive way of targeting extra aid to poor urban schoolchildren, Mr. Baker said.

“If the court were to bless this [new formula], others could say that’s where courts and states like New Jersey are willing to draw the line and say enough is enough,” he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the October 08, 2008 edition of Education Week as N.J.'s Top Court Wrestles Anew With Funding Issue


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