Abbotts and the Death of “Old Jersey”

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There’s a remarkable admission from Gordon MacInnes, assistant commissioner for Abbott Implementation for the NJ DOE from 2002-2007, in NJ Spotlight. In his discussion of the Education Law Center’s petition to the NJ Supreme Court to restore Christie’s school aid cuts on the grounds that the cuts violate the School Funding Reform Act, he says,

The Abbotts seem to have a strong case. And they’ll probably lose.

The impending loss, he explains, stems in part from a shift from the “Old New Jersey” (“THE state for progressive school funding”) to “The Emerging New Jersey” (where public employee pension and benefits” are “unsustainable” due to decades of bicameral fiscal mismanagement). Other reasons include a move away from a “progressive, no-ideological center,” a Supreme Court lauded for activism, and Governor Christie’s “blunt arrogance,” particularly his “verbal assault on his own education commissioner for the compromise struck with the NJEA” over Race To The Top.

One quibble with MacInnes’ dirge for the good old days: Christie’s “ideology,” according to MacInnes, is “best illustrated by his cut of $900 million in state aid for the 1.3 million public school students while advocating a brand-new program of $360 million to subsidize tuition payments for a few thousand students attending private schools.” The reference is to the Opportunity Scholarship Act, which gives companies dollar-for-dollar tax credits to provide scholarships for poor kids to private and parochial schools. So it’s not exactly cutting $360 million (over a five-year pilot) from this year’s state aid cuts. Ironically, whether one is a supporter for the voucher bill or not, both it and the Abbott rulings are intended to aid the same cohort of kids.

Is it possible to wrap our heads around a system that acknowledges that we’re failing low-income kids – and, in fact, have been doing so for decades, including during the years of Court-ordered Abbott funding – and develops a catalogue of remedies? Charter schools, privately-funded scholarships, additional state aid to poor districts, and implementation of education reform initiatives in our traditional public districts can all be part of our list. They all share one goal, right? MacInnes is mourning the Death of Old Jersey, but all that’s happened is that Education Law Center now has many more allies than before, all driven to find more opportunities for our neediest kids.

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