Nearly three decades of legal battles in New Jersey have concluded with a remarkable victory for advocates of equity in school funding for poor children.
In the spring of 1998, after 27 years and 11 separate rulings, the New Jersey Supreme Court wrote the final chapter in the landmark Abbott v Burkecase. The case is the first in the history of state-by-state legal battles over school finance to establish an “equity standard” for poor districts. The decision mandates both per pupil funding equity between the state’s poorest and richest districts, and an extra measure of supplemental spending in poor communities to address their greater educational and social needs.
In it’s latest ruling, the court ordered the state to implement a series of programs in the 28 poorest districts that would provide full-day kindergarten, half-day preschool for 3-and 4-year-olds, extra community and health services in each school, and a $1.8 billion program of school repairs and construction. The ruling came one year after the court had
ruled, for a tenth and presumably final time, that the state constitution required New Jersey to eliminate the funding disparities that lay at the heart of systematic educational inequality. That decision required the state to give an additional $246 million in regular school funding to the poor urban districts.
The Abbott rulings herald a new era in New Jersey education, with national implications. If fully implemented, they would provide poor schools with a level of resources they have never had and create a practical test of the much-debated role of money in addressing educational failure and inequality.
The focus has now turned to debate over the specific reforms needed to assure progress. The Education Law Center, the legal advocacy group that successfully fought the case, is attempting to develop a series of educational frame-works for “transforming teaching and learning in special needs districts.” The State Department of Education is also developing reform guidelines, state curriculum standards, and new state tests. A sustained and contentious debate over
how the money should be used is just getting underway.
Despite the landmark nature of the ruling, several potential complications remain. Because the court addressed equity issues only between the state’s 28 poorest districts and the richest (approximately 110) districts, the decisions by-pass spending and equity issues in over 400 other New Jersey districts. This could lead the state legislature to re-open debate on reforming the entire funding system ( now heavily reliant on local property taxes), with unforeseen impact. In addition, despite a long history by New Jersey governors and legislators ignoring or evading previous court rulings on school funding, the court chose not to retain jurisdiction in the case. This means any new legal challenge to state funding plans would have to travel the same long road that the Abbott case just completed.
Nevertheless, the successful conclusion of the Abbott case is a major victory for educational equity. It raises hopes that a combination of new resources and effective reforms can realize the court’s stated goal of “wiping out disadvantages as much as a school district can.”