Abbott as Lazurus

"The suburbs are the big losers in this. It’s the worst of all worlds. We have no formula and the only addition funds they’ve ordered are going to the Abbotts."

That’s Senator Barbara Buono in today’s Star-Ledger on the peculiar State Supreme Court ruling issued Tuesday that reinstates the distinction between Abbott and non-Abbott districts which the new school funding formula (SFRA) attempted to erase.

Some good editorials out there: check out Gordon MacInness, Bob Braun, and The Trentonian Editorial Board. Bruce Baker has a good primer on his blog.

Everyone knows that the Abbott distinction is anachronistic – these districts were designated as Abbotts back in 1990 when most poor children clustered in 31 urban areas, unlike two decades later when the population is far more diffuse. Heck, Education Law Center, stalwart advocates for poor children, fought passionately before the truncated Court (two Justices recused themselves for a final decision of 3-2) for erasing the distinction and directing supplemental funding by student, not zip code. (Okay, the advocacy group fought to maintain the distinction when SFRA was first litigated but that was two whole years ago.)

New Jersey is historically a state of fragmentation and segregation, especially in public education: poor districts press up against wealthy ones, dropout-factories abut suburban academies of stellar achievement. SFRA recognized that while these inequities still exist our neediest kids no longer reside in just 31 Abbott districts but elsewhere as well. Tuesday’s Supreme Court ruling declared that this demographic reality is irrelevant.

It was a “gotcha, sucka” moment for the Christie Administration. The Court’s reprimand in the form of Abbott XXI went something like this: you fought (or at least former Gov. Corzine did) for SFRA. But you didn’t fully fund it and the economic recession is no excuse. Harrumph! We’ll just morph back to the increasingly meaningless dichotomy between Abbotts school districts and non-Abbott school districts. So there! You’ve only yourself to blame.

Here’s an example of the outdated distinction. One of the Abbott districts is Hoboken, which at one time was an impoverished urban area. According 2007 data, however, the median income for a household is $96,786 and the median income for a family is $107,375, hardly economic deprivation. 2010 census data will most likely increase the relative wealth of the city. The public schools there do okay. In 2006 NJ Jersey Monthly rated Hoboken High School 260th out of the state's 316; it jumped t0 139th in 2008. Yet Hoboken is in for a share of the additional $500 million in school funding ordered by the three Justices who signed the decision.

Everyone knows the need for supplemental educational funding is far more diverse than the antiquated list of 31 towns. The ruling may serve as a slap on the wrist to the Christie Administration but it inflicts far more damage on poor children in NJ who don’t happen to live in an Abbott district.

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