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New Jersey's Decades-Long School Finance Case: So, What's the Payoff?

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Published: 11/19/2009 6:06:00 PM

In its pathbreaking Abbott v. Burke decision in 1990, the  New Jersey Supreme Court laid the groundwork for providing extra state  resources for 32 poor, urban school districts, dubbed the Abbott  districts. Last May, following two decades of legal and legislative  adjustments, the court allowed New Jersey to remove the Abbott  designation, saying that, except for special cases like preschool and  construction funding, poorer districts no longer needed the state’s  help in providing educational resources equal to those provided by  wealthier communities.

The Abbott case remains the most complex in the wave of  adequacy lawsuits that have swept the nation during the past three  decades, as plaintiffs in states around the country have sought to  increase funding to comply with state constitutional guarantees to  provide equal educational opportunities for all students.

On November 11 at a forum at Teachers College, four legal and  education specialists assessed how successful the Abbott districts have  been in providing equitable educational opportunities, and what the  future holds for them as they lose their special-funding status.

The panel was sponsored by the Campaign for Educational Equity at  Teachers College and introduced by Michael Rebell, the campaign’s  founding executive director and the lead attorney for plaintiffs in an  important educational equity lawsuit in New York.

The first speaker, David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center in Newark, said New Jersey  has made progress toward more equitable funding for low-income  districts. The Abbott districts also have produced high quality  preschools that are models for the nation; instituted supplemental  programs for at-risk children in grades K-through-12; and assisted in  the building or renovation of 200 inner-city schools.

Sciarra, whose organization serves as a legal watchdog for the  Abbott districts, said the gap in state math test scores between fourth  graders in Abbott districts and non-Abbott districts narrowed from 31  points in 1999 to 19 points in 2007, and on state reading tests from 22  points in 2001 to 15 points in 2007. Success in eighth grade was more  modest, narrowing from 30 points in 2000 for math in 2000 to 26 points  in 2007, and staying at 20 points for reading during the same years.  The achievement gap has not narrowed in high schools, but New Jersey has the highest high school graduation rates in the nation for African American males, Sciarra said.

“The truth is, we have started to make some real progress,” Sciarra said. “When people ask, ‘what did Abbott do,’ I say, we still have a long way to go, but the answer is, a heck of a lot.”

Gordon MacInnes, a fellow at the Century Foundation who oversaw implementation of the Abbott decisions  as Assistant Commissioner at the New Jersey Department of Education  from 2002 to 2007, delivered a mixed assessment. The gap in “life  chances” between poor and middle-class and wealthy students in New Jersey  and across the nation is “still substantial,” he said. “When you get to  middle school, eighth grade, high school - forget about it. This has  been a huge failure.”

MacInnes said Abbott, “arguably the most important judicial decision in education since Brown v. Board of Education”  in 1954, has resulted in some meaningful changes in individual school  districts for certain groups, such as free, high-quality preschools for  three- and four-year olds. And some Abbott districts such as Union City,  which instituted its own intensive K-4 literacy program and got  adequate support for teachers, have done exceptionally well. But it has  not produced the hard, concerted effort between students, teachers and  parents - and, especially, the support of teachers of low-income  students - that is necessary to get poor students on the same footing  with wealthier ones.

Unlike the other speakers, who are long-time fighters for educational equity in New Jersey, Clifford Janey came with a fresh perspective, having signed on as superintendent of schools in Newark less than 18 months ago. Dr. Janey said Abbott’s biggest legacy in Newark, the largest city and school district in the state, was that it set a funding formula that gave Newark  a chance to help its high-need students. “I think it did well by  students in terms of pre-K,” Janey said. “We now have 82 percent of our  three- to four-year old population involved in pre-K, up 10 percent  from where it was the year before I came.”

But funding formulas and new programs will not solve the problems of  poor students unless there are policies in place that support them,  Janey said. Even with extra Abbott funding, he had to tighten  graduation reporting and attendance requirements in Newark,  for example. He had to come to an agreement with the Board of Education  and teachers about what makes an effective teacher, what college  readiness or job readiness looks like for graduating seniors, and how  to work those attributes into the curriculum all the way back to  preschool.

Education reform, Janey said, “has to do with the graduating class,  and each step toward the graduating class, and how we are all  accountable, but together.”

The forum was one of a series on education equity sponsored by the  Campaign for Educational Equity at Teachers College. The next forum,  Reframing Family Involvement:  Supporting Families to Support  Educational Equity,” will be held on December 3 from 3:00 to 4:30 p.m.  in Milbank Chapel at Teachers College.

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