Inequality Continues to Trouble New Jersey’s Schools Despite Gains from “Abbott v. Burke”

At a debriefing of the film, Backpack Full of Cash, which was recently screened in our community, the most probing questions arose about David Kirp’s depiction of the schools in Union City, New Jersey.  How could a poor city afford the universal preschool, small classes and personalized attention the film portrayed?  How could Union City afford to turn around its schools this way?  For Ohioans who watched the film, it seemed a miracle.

David Kirp is a professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley.  His fine book, Improbable Scholars, explains part of the answer: “Money cannot cure all the ailments of public education…. But the fact that New Jersey spends more than $16,000 per student, third in the nation, partly explains why a state in which nearly half the students are minorities and a disproportionate share are immigrants has the country’s highest graduation rate and ranks among the top five on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the country’s report card.  The additional money also helps to account for how New Jersey halved the achievement gap between black, Latino, and white students between 1999 and 2007, something no other state has come close to accomplishing.” (p. 85)

So how does New Jersey have enough money to fund its schools adequately even in its poorest communities?  The Education Law Center, which has litigated the school funding case of Abbott v. Burke, describes the history of the case: “In 1981, the Education Law Center filed a complaint in Superior Court on behalf of 20 children attending public schools in the cities of Camden, East Orange, Irvington, and Jersey City.  The lawsuit challenged New Jersey’s system of financing public education under the Public School Education Act of 1975… The case eventually made it’s way to the N.J. Supreme Court, which, in 1985, issued the first Abbott decision (Abbott I) transferring the case to an administrative law judge for an initial hearing. In 1990, in Abbott II, the N.J. Supreme Court upheld the administrative law judge’s ruling, finding the State’s school funding law unconstitutional as applied to children in 28 ‘poorer urban’ school districts. That number was later expanded to 31… The Court’s ruling directed the Legislature to amend or enact a new law to ‘assure’ funding for the urban districts: 1) at the foundation level ‘substantially equivalent’ to that in the successful suburban districts; and 2) ‘adequate’ to provide for the supplemental programs necessary to address the extreme disadvantages of urban schoolchildren. The Court ordered this new funding mechanism be in place for the following school year, 1991-92.”

Abbott v. Burke has been challenged repeatedly and continues to be challenged—most recently in Abbott XX and Abbott XXI, but the New Jersey Supreme Court has upheld the extra funding for New Jersey’s Abbott districts. One of the provisions of the remedy in this case is the guarantee of enriched preschool in all of New Jersey’s Abbott school districts.

In Improbable Scholars, Kirp describes how the school district in Union City invested its Abbott remedy dollars: “Every dollar went to improve instruction. Class sizes shrank, teachers receive training in everything from ESL to project-driven learning, specialists were hired to work one-on-one with teachers, and all the schools were wired with a computer for every three students.” (pp. 85-86)  “In the first phases of the Abbott. v. Burke litigation, the New Jersey Supreme Court focused exclusively on K-12. Later on, however, the justices were persuaded by mountains of evidence that good preschool was essential if children living in the state’s poorest communities, who started kindergarten well behind their better-off peers, were going to have a truly equal chance of success. Thanks to the Court’s 1998 ruling, every three-and four-year-old who lives in an ‘Abbott district’ is entitled to attend a high-quality prekindergarten.” (p. 108)

The challenges for very poor children remain overwhelming in our society that remains highly segregated both racially and economically. Despite Kirp’s optimism, many of the challenges for New Jersey’s poorest children remain unaddressed, according to New Jersey Spotlight, which covered a new report from the Fund for New Jersey that criticizes Chris Christie’s administration for under-funding the Abbott remedy and points out that New Jersey remains “one of the most segregated states in the country.”

In its new report, the Fund for New Jersey documents a set of ongoing problems that undermine opportunity for poor children and black and brown children no matter where they live in today’s America—including New Jersey, despite the educational investment mandated in the Abbott remedy:  “New Jersey is one of the most diverse states in the nation but our schools do not reflect our state demographics. Instead, many districts reflect population concentrations of poor and minority students while other districts serve primarily wealthy and white students. Even within districts that have more diverse student bodies overall, racial disparities can be found among the district schools. The achievement gaps between and within districts reflect deep-rooted divides. Our state’s record is paradoxical: New Jersey has the nation’s strongest constitutional and legal framework for integration of the public schools and is among those states that are the most segregated on the ground. ”

Former New Jersey Supreme Court Chief Justice Deborah Poritz spoke at the press conference earlier this week where the Fund for New Jersey released its report.  Justice Poritz reflects on the remaining challenges poverty and racial segregation pose for New Jersey’s children even despite the considerable impact of the Abbott remedy: “In some ways, we are the best education system in America… In some ways, it is the worst… the very bottom… We have come a long way… but the Legislature never fulfilled the promise… We need educated children, we need an educated workforce.  If you want these things, you may need to take some pain… You may be willing to be taxed more, you may be willing to swallow hard.”

Justice Poritz describes Abbott v. Burke and the state’s subsequent investment in the education its children as “a start.”

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