Abbott Reality Check

The State is arguing today at the Bergen County Courthouse that its new SFRA should replace the Abbott decisions as the funding mechanism that provides educational equity in New Jersey. (Here's the Star-Ledger article today.) Seems like a good time to review some of the core issues that got us to this point.

Thirty-one school districts in New Jersey were labeled Abbott districts in 1997 by the State Supreme Court as a kind of grand social experiment: take the most educationally bereft areas in a State that funds public schools through local property taxes, and replace the local funding with State aid so that those districts receive at least as much money as the wealthiest districts. Not as much money as the average district (as other states do), but the wealthiest. This decision came after sixteen years of litigation (the first Abbott case was filed in early 1981 by the Education Law Center) and the ELC and the State have basically been in court ever since. A few of the Abbott districts have had great success, many others have not. So, has the experiment worked?

No, not really. Over two years ago, the New York Times reported,

Today, the Abbott districts serve 286,500 children in kindergarten through 12th grade — about 21 percent of the state’s students — but get $4.2 billion a year in state aid, slightly more than half of all the state money given to New Jersey’s 616 school districts. The Abbotts are among the highest-spending school districts in the state, averaging $14,038 per student compared with $10,509 statewide. The vast majority of districts that fall between richest and poorest say they are increasingly bearing the burden of the Abbotts’ getting so much of the money.

The numbers are now more inflated. The average spending on a child in an Abbott district was $16,407 for the 2007-2008 school year, 24% more than the average cost per pupil in the rest of the State.

It’s not the number themselves that are troubling (okay, they are too). The troubling part is that there are many children in New Jersey who don’t live in Abbott districts yet experience as great or greater degrees of educational deprivation. What are we doing about those kids? Tell them all to move to Camden? On the other side of the coin, there are districts that are labeled as Abbott that are, well, not so Abbott-y any more. Hoboken comes to mind.

The logic inherent in Abbott dictates that we reevaluate all our districts, identify the poorest, and send State aid their way so that their kids get the same money as kids in Short Hills. If we did that we’d go broke, and everyone knows that. But we’re stuck in some sort of 1970’s time warp where educational deficiencies can be reduced to race and urban residence. It’s more complicated than that, at least in New Jersey. Here’s a quote from a recent ELC press release on Abbott versus SFRA:

Noted civil rights attorney Lawrence S. Lustberg of the Gibbons law firm in Newark, co-counsel to the school children in the Abbott case, issued the following statement on the State’s motion:

"On behalf of New Jersey's poor urban schoolchildren, we are strongly opposing the State's extraordinary request to get out from under its long-established obligation to continue implementing the Abbott remedies. The State has fallen far short of making the required showing that those remedies are not needed or are ineffective. To the contrary, the evidence shows that the remedies are having a positive effect on urban schools and their students, and that the need for them continues. It would be contrary to the law and harmful to the children if the State's motion is granted."

If we want to continue to fund poor kids at the same rate as our wealthiest kids, then we’ve got to find a different way to identify them. The Abbott designations are no longer meaningful. (Where we’ll find the money is a different issue.) And if we’re going to fund poor kids like rich kids, the State’s got to control how much municipalities are allowed to spend on their rich kids, which is provoking much panic from the landed gentry. From the Star-Ledger article:

Richard Snyder, who represents 40 wealthier, high-performing districts in a group called Dollar$ & Sense, said his members have their own concerns with the funding formula. He said the new formula will force them to spend less than they deem appropriate to provide the best education.

"The state wants to resolve its funding problems by having the suburban districts dumb down their programs," said Snyder, a board of education member in Ramsey, Bergen County.

If one were a conspiracy theorist, one could conjecture that all the new mandates, all the efficiency standards, and all the new high school graduation requirements are a scheme to equalize our school districts so that all the kids get the same cookie-cutter set of educational services. That’s the great fear of groups like Dollar$ and Sense. But what else can we do except go broke perpetuating the myth that all our kids get a fair share of the pie or, according to the Abbott logic, get the biggest piece of the pie? The math just doesn’t work.

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