David Sciarra’s Prescription for Curing Chris Christie’s Education Malaise in New Jersey

A lot of us worry about how far backward our society is falling in its commitment to public responsibility. It seems overwhelming to try to imagine how states and the federal government can crawl out from a deep hole dug by tax cutting, privatization, and elimination of services and programs many of us have assumed government will provide. Kansas during Sam Brownback’s tenure as governor has stood out for the failure of his experiment in tax slashing and supply side, trickle-down economics.  But despite that Governor Chris Christie was checked by Democratic legislative majorities, he also left a stain on public education.  Christie formally left office on January 15.

Here is how the executive director of the Education Law Center, David Sciarra describes Christie’s problematic public education legacy: “He set the tone in the 2010 state budget—his first—when he pushed through a $1 billion school-funding cut, wiping out two years of increases under the School Funding Reform Act (SRFA), the landmark weighted funding-formula enacted in 2008. In his budgets over the next seven years, Christie refused to fund the SFRA formula, blowing a $1 billion annual hole in district budgets and forcing cuts to essential staff, programs and services. But there’s more: He staunchly resisted expanding preschool; pushed for vouchers; allowed the state school construction fund to run dry; approved big expansions by out-of-state charter chains with no regard for the impact on district budgets; opposed restoring local control to state operated districts; and ignored the need to support improvements in struggling district schools. He even tried to replace the SFRA with the flat per-pupil funding.”

Sciarra’s catalog of failures omits Marc Zuckerberg’s experimental and ill-fated $100 million gift to fund the massive charter school expansion in Newark.  Newark’s schools had been under state control for two decades when Governor Christie and then-Newark-Mayor Cory Booker hatched their grand plan, sold it to Zuckerberg and orchestrated Zuckerberg’s presentation of his big check on the Oprah Winfrey Show.  Dale Russakoff’s The Prize covered the damage to the community. Here are this blog’s posts on the unsuccessful  Zuckerberg-Christie-Booker experiment.

Sciarra has a personal and professional understanding of the urgent need to address the damage inflicted by Chris Christie. Long before Christie’s tenure, thanks to the Education Law Center, New Jersey became a beacon for adequately funding its schools and doing more than other states to ameliorate school inequity.  The Education Law Center, which Sciarra now leads, litigated the school funding case of Abbott v. Burke. On its website, the Education Law Center traces the lengthy 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 was, in 1998, the guarantee of enriched preschool in all of New Jersey’s Abbott school districts.

In 2013, David Kirp, a public policy professor at the U. of California at Berkeley, published Improbable Scholars, the story of the improvement of the public schools in one New Jersey school district. In the book, Kirp describes the long impact of Abbott v. Burke, probably the most effective, court-driven school funding remedy across any of the fifty states: “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 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)

With the 2017 election of Phil Murphy as governor, New Jersey became an all-Democratic state with Democratic majorities in both houses of the legislature.  What does David Sciarra believe ought to be Governor Murphy’s priorities? Here is his list: move toward full funding for every school district under the School Reform Act; continue to expand the esteemed Abbott preschools for all three- and four-year-olds; refuse to institute private school tuition vouchers; and refuse to expand charter schools which threaten public school funding and school integration.

The decades of legal challenges brought to challenge Abbott v. Burke demonstrate that threats to adequate school funding, equitably distributed will not disappear.  Realizing that children’s needs remain vulnerable, Sciarra quotes from the writer of the 1998 Abbott V decision, who recognizes that ongoing threats to New Jersey school funding, “render it essential that (children’s) interests remain prominent, paramount and fully protected.”

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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.”

Chris Christie Dives to New Low with Proposal to Cheat New Jersey’s Poorest Children

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has just proposed an absurd school funding reform plan that has united advocates left and right.  All agree that it is immoral.

Joe Hernandez of Newsworks explains Christie’s new idea: “Gov. Chris Christie is proposing major changes to the way New Jersey doles out education funding to school districts. Departing from a decades-old policy in which the state sent more aid to low-performing urban districts, Christie is recommending a funding formula that gives every district $6,599 per student.”

Here is the response of the editorial board of the NY Times: “(A) flat amount would make it impossible for poor communities to provide a sound education for disadvantaged children who need classrooms with more resources.  The state is required by law to send more money to those communities because they simply don’t have the tax base or property values to raise additional revenues on their own.  The New Jersey Supreme Court mandated this approach in Abbott v. Burke, a case named for Raymond Abbott, a student in Camden who received no services for a learning disability and was barely literate at the age of 15.  The court ruled in 1990, and in many rulings since, that New Jersey was bound by the State Constitution to fund districts at a level that allows all children to receive an education that enables them to participate in the economy and a democratic society… The 31 New Jersey school districts…known as ‘Abbott Districts’ educate nearly a quarter of the state’s students, more than 40 percent of its poor children and 56 percent of its English language learners.”

Dana Goldstein, writing for Slate, describes the plan: “In fact, if enacted, Christie’s proposal would amount to a huge giveaway to the children and families who are already thriving in New Jersey while hurting the kids who most need a leg up.  With this plan, the governor hopes to lower taxes…. Here’s how Christie’s proposal would work in practice: Hillsborough Township, the leafy suburb where he delivered his speech, is 78 percent white, 8 percent Latino, and 5 percent black.  Its education funding would increase by 86 percent under Christie’s plan. In high-poverty Newark, which is 84 percent black and Latino, funding would decrease by a devastating 69 percent.”

And Shavar Jeffries—farther to the right and now president of the pro-charter, hedge-funded PAC Democrats for Education Reform, and a former candidate for mayor of Newark—agrees: “Every child in this state and across the country deserves access to a high-quality public education, regardless of their background or what zip code they happen to live in.  But to help achieve this basic right for all our public school students, both in traditional and public charter schools, we need the equitable funding policies that Gov. Christie is looking to strip away… For decades, both state and national education law has recognized that different kids need different levels of funding based on their needs, and for 40 years the New Jersey Supreme Court has recognized the extraordinary burdens that concentrated poverty places on the educational destinies of our children.  Gov. Christie’s proposal ignores these plain realities in favor of a false equality that wishes away the self-evident differences in the educational environments within which our children learn.”

In his acclaimed, 2013 book, Improbable Scholars, David Kirp, the Berkeley professor of public policy, describes the implications of New Jersey’s school funding—grounded in the legislative remedy for Abbott v. Burke:  “(T)he 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 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)

William Mathis of the National Education Policy Center summarizes a number of school finance principles grounded in years’ of research, in a new brief that contravenes Christie’s bizarre concept of equity via flat-funding: “Adequate and equitable distributions of school financial resources are a necessary underlying condition for maintaining democracy, improving school quality and equality of outcomes. While specific results vary from place to place, in general, money does matter and it matters most for economically deprived children. Gains from investing in education are found in test scores, later earnings, and graduation rates.  The largest gains in achievement have been in states that have undertaken fundamental financial reforms.”

Chris Christie is blinded by the dream that he can regain popularity by cutting taxes at the expense of the state’s poorest children.

Why Checks and Balances Need to Include the Courts

Just last week the Education Law Center, whose attorneys have litigated the landmark New Jersey school funding case in Abbott v. Burke, announced that the Education Law Center has “joined the legal teams in Maisto v. State of New York and Bacon v. NJ Department of Education, lawsuits on behalf of students in 8 Small City New York school districts and 16 poor, rural, New Jersey districts, respectively.  These cases challenge deep resource deficits and unconstitutionally low funding by each State, in violation of their state constitutions.”

It would be so nice to think that when school districts are short of money, citizens would raise their taxes to pay for what’s needed for the children. What does it say about our society that funding our schools has become deeply contentious?

According to the Education Law Center, the towns bringing the lawsuit in New York are Jamestown, Kingston, Mount Vernon, Newburgh, Niagara Falls, Port Jervis, Poughkeepsie, and Utica. Together they serve 55,000 students.  All have poverty rates over 50 percent; in at least one community the poverty rate is 94 percent. “All have low property wealth and income and have experienced substantial shortfalls and state cuts in school funding in recent years.”

In New Jersey, attorneys say that a remedial order from the New Jersey Department of Education in 2009 ordered that students in 16 rural districts be fully funded under the School Funding Reform Act of 2008.  The state has not complied.  David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center commented: “Governor Chris Christie’s stubborn resistance to investing in our children leaves no alternative but to take appropriate legal action.”  In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo continues to promise tax cuts as part of his platform for reelection this coming November.

Being free from such court oversight to enforce the mandates of a state constitution appeals to Chad Readler, a Columbus, Ohio attorney who chairs Ohio’s Constitutional Modernization Commission.  Readler is also, according to Karen Kesler of StateImpact Ohio, the chairman of the Ohio Alliance of Public Charter Schools.  Kesler updates earlier reports that Readler’s goal is to have the Constitutional Modernization Commission remove protection for school funding from Ohio’s constitution by deleting this clause: “The General Assembly shall provide and fund a thorough and efficient system of common school throughout the state.” Kesler quotes Readler:  “That language has been used as a vehicle to take those disputes to court and have judges set our education policy rather than boards of education and legislatures.  And in my mind that’s a concern.  I think that boards of education and legislatures are better equipped to address education policy issues.”  (This blog most recently posted on the Ohio controversy here.)

Kesler interviews members of the Ohio Senate and the Ohio House serving on the Constitutional Modernization Commission who agree with Readler and want to remove the language that makes school funding justiciable in Ohio.  They say they want the Ohio Constitution to protect school choice instead.  Kesler also quotes Charlie Wilson, a professor at the college of law at the Ohio State University, who “fears if that language is removed, there would be no right to public education in Ohio, because the U.S. Supreme court has already held that education is not a federal fundamental right and has left it to the states.” Wilson comments, “If there’s not some kind of enforcement mechanism, then it’s very easy for the General Assembly to ignore the Constitution, and then you get to the question of why even bother having a Constitution.”

In New Jersey, Abbott School Districts Model Unified, Enriched Pre-Kindergarten

This morning the NY Times reports new analysis from economist James Heckman showing that the North Carolina Abecedarian Project, a study developed in the 1970s to mitigate hardship in early childhood, had long term health benefits added to its intellectual benefits for the impoverished children who received fully enriched services.  There is much talk these days of the need for public programs to provide early childhood enrichment in communities where poverty is concentrated, including specific proposals for pre-kindergarten from President Barack Obama and from New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.  But in our era of austerity budgeting at the state and federal levels, few places have found the money to launch well-coordinated, quality programming. This means that in most places the children who benefit from early education are those whose parents can afford to pay for it.

One exception is New Jersey, whose Abbott Pre-Kindergarten program was recently profiled by Sharon Lerner for The American Prospect.  Lerner writes:  “… anyone who would like to see what Obama’s vision of universal pre-K might look like would do well to come to Orange, one of 31 (school) districts in the state known as ‘Abbotts.’  Because of a historic lawsuit, for almost a decade virtually all three-and four-year olds in these low-income urban areas have been attending preschool. Already well acquainted with the benefits and unforeseen challenges of expanding pre-K, the Abbotts serve as a window into the future of early education.”

Pre-Kindergarten in New Jersey’s Abbott districts is one of the long term results of a school funding lawsuit, Abbott v. Burke, filed in 1981 and litigated over three decades. “The court wound up devising several remedies, including what amounted to a massive redistribution of education dollars.  Children in these poor districts in New Jersey (31 school districts whose needs were deemed the greatest) would receive not only resources equal to those in richer districts but also additional support to help them contend with the consequences of poverty.  Later, after legislators repeatedly resisted the idea of sharing money across district lines, the court wound up laying out the specific tools that each Abbott district would use to combat poverty, including, in 1998, universal preschool.”

The plan for preschool, which the court demanded the right to review, was approved in 2001.  Classes are capped at 15 students with an aide. Individual programs need to follow one of several approved curricula.  Teachers must have earned a bachelor’s degree and early childhood certification. Preschool teachers are paid at the same rate as public school teachers.

Besides establishing new sites, the Abbott preschool program was designed to incorporate all the early childhood education programs and Head Start programs that already existed in the 31 targeted school districts. David Sciarra, Executive Director of the Education Law Center that litigated Abbott over the decades, concludes: “This is the Abbott lesson. You had all of these existing programs that get federal and state dollars, child-care and Head Start programs already in the community.  It made no sense to ignore that infrastructure and replace it with all new programs.  What happened in Abbott that’s so revolutionary is that it unified child care, Head Start, and public school classrooms in a coordinated system.”

Sciarra comments: “Early education is to me the most surprising and frankly the most gratifying of all the remedies that came out of Abbott.”

School Funding Litigation Seems Endless But Proves Essential

According to David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center and lead counsel in the New Jersey school funding case, Abbott v. Burke,  “There is a decades-old and stubborn unwillingness by governors and legislators in state capitols to remedy the stark disparities in educational opportunity that mark the education landscape in most of our states.”

Noticing that states do not adequately compensate for enormous disparities in local taxing capacity from school district to school district, Eduardo Porter, writing a month ago in the business section of the NY Times, wondered: “If education is a poor child’s best shot at rising up the ladder of prosperity, why do public resources devoted to education lean so decisively in favor of the better off?”  This question is related to the much discussed international PISA scores released last week, an international score ranking in which the test scores of U.S. students in schools segregated by poverty and race pulled down the average for our society.

Even before last week’s despair about PISA scores, Porter raised the central issue:  “The United States is one of few advanced nations where schools serving better-off children usually have more educational resources than those serving poor students, according to research by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).”  The OECD that conducted the research on comparative school funding equity is also the sponsor of the PISA exams.

Porter quotes Andreas Schleicher, in charge of the PISA assessments for OECD:  “The bottom line is that the vast majority of OECD countries either invest equally into every student or disproportionately more into disadvantaged students.  The U.S. is one of the few countries doing the opposite.”

The PISA scores and the OECD research that demonstrates our society’s commitment to educational inequality provide the context for a victory of sorts last week in Connecticut, where a trial court denied the state’s motion to dismiss the case of Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding (CCJEF) v. Rell.   The Education Law Center reports: “The state claimed the case lacked ripeness, was moot, and the plaintiffs lacked standing,” an interesting notion, as the plaintiff coalition includes municipalities, local boards of education, professional education associations, unions, parents, public schoolchildren and concerned Connecticut taxpayers.

The state claimed its funding system had been changed after the original lawsuit was filed (making the original lawsuit moot) and more time would be needed to see if the changes that have been made will render Connecticut school funding more equal (time needed to ripen the fruits of whatever minor changes the state has made).  The Education Law Center identifies these concepts as a new trend: “States are filing ripeness and mootness claims in an apparent effort to delay trials.” “On the basis of minor or even adverse legislative changes to their state school funding systems, Connecticut and New York claimed their funding systems were so different from the systems challenged in plaintiffs’ complaints… that those cases were rendered moot.  Furthermore, these states argued that their ‘new’ funding systems would need several years to show their impact, thus making the cases unripe for trial.”

The news release from the Education Law Center describes the impact of the recent decision: “Judge Kevin Dubay’s CCJEF opinion clearly explains that a trial on the merits is necessary to develop a full factual evidentiary record, including resolution of any issues of mootness or ripeness.”

The seemingly endless pursuit of school finance equity, of course, begins to feel like Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, the novel in which the Court of Chancery, “gives to monied might the means abundantly of wearying out the right; which so exhausts finances, patience, courage, hope; so overthrows the brain and breaks the heart; that there is not an honourable man among its practitioners who would not give—who does not often give—the warning, ‘ Suffer any wrong that can be done you rather than come here!'” (p. 2)

But in our society where we have long been conditioned to worry more about funding the schools in our own community than developing a system where we all willingly contribute to pay for the education of all of our society’s children, school funding cases have proven themselves necessary.  In one of the best education books of 2013, Improbable Scholars, David Kirp, a professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley, describes the impact of Abbott v. Burke, the case litigated by David Sciarra and the Education Law Center that has driven resources to New Jersey’s poorest school districts:

“In twenty-one decrees issued over the course of nearly three decades, the justices have read the state’s constitutional guarantee of  ‘a thorough and efficient system of education’ as a charter of equality for urban youth. That 1875 provision, said the court in its historic 1990 ruling, Abbott II, meant that youngsters living in poor cities were entitled to an education as good as their suburban counterparts… In crafting its decision, the court concentrated on the state’s thirty-one worst-off districts…  Thrust and parry—beginning with its 1990 decision, the justices dueled repeatedly with lawmakers…  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 Education Progress…. 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.”  (pp. 84-85)