This morning lawyers will gather in Superior Court Judge Peter Doyne’s courtroom for three weeks of testimony regarding the constitutionality of Corzine’s School Funding Reform Act (SFRA). Last year Corzine convinced the State Legislature to abandon the way we channel vast amounts of money to 31 poor urban districts – the Abbotts – in favor of giving extra money to poor kids regardless of where they live in New Jersey. The new funding formula was challenged in court by the Education Law Center and has now wound up back in court. There’s much at stake, including whether we continue to privilege poor urban children over poor non-urban children.
Abandoning the legal designation of the Abbotts would take New Jersey in a whole new direction in a case that began a quarter century ago. The court has progressively increased supplemental funding to the districts and their 300,000 children, ordering state-funded full-day kindergarten and preschool, the repair or replacement of hundreds of decrepit, overcrowded buildings and enough operating costs to match the state’s wealthiest communities.
Countless stories of corruption, waste, and mis-appropriated funds have become a staple of New Jersey newspapers. Reasonable doubts have been voiced about the DOE’s ability to implement a system whereby the money, in effect, would follow the (needy) child, especially since poor kids are more likely to move from district to district. But the logic behind the Abbott decisions – that the lagging academic achievement of poor urban kids can be ameliorated by funding their school districts at the level of our wealthiest districts – is flawed.
An editorial in the Star-Ledger points out,
Except for a handful of schools, New Jersey’s Abbott school districts continue to lag solidly behind their peers in language arts and math. And Department of Education commissioner Lucille Davy said the results are a reminder of just how much work those mostly urban districts have ahead to narrow the gap.
Throwing money at the problem doesn’t work. We’ve proved that in New Jersey. What’s that definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.
It’s easy to be glib. It’s a lot harder to find a way to provide education for our growing number of impoverished children who live in rural and suburban areas of New Jersey, not just 31 specifically-designated urban areas. The Education Law Center’s success in achieving fair funding for poor children through their advocacy of the Abbott decisions is admirable and honorable. But right now it’s an anachronism. Perhaps twenty years ago, when the Abbott v. Burke case was first litigated, it made sense to aim State aid squarely at those 31 districts. Right now, however, that aid, financial and otherwise, needs to be disseminated more strategically. Proliferation of the current Abbott financing is like aiming a fire hose at one small section of a forest fire. Yeah, you’ll quell the flames in a hot corner but everyone else gets burnt.