GUEST: NJ school funding continues to neglect “other people’s children”


Paul Tractenberg
Paul Tractenberg

By Paul Tractenberg

NOTE: In 1990, 25 years ago, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled–in a case known as Abbott vs. Burke–that the state must fund disadvantaged urban school districts at a level that would help them overcome the poverty imposed on their children by a society and an economy that favors the rich. Recently, Rutgers professor Paul Tractenberg, a founder of the Education Law Center that brought the Abbott case, spoke about how the state continues to fail its urban children. This site presents excerpts from his analysis.

What exactly has Abbott wrought?  Incidentally, it was never about money for money’s sake—it was always about adequate and equalized funding as being necessary for good education of all children, especially at-risk youngsters, but not sufficient to assure it.  The money had to be well spent:  that meant strategically to meet the needs of those students; that meant on the basis of evidence of what could work; and that meant with real accountability.

The result for students in the Abbott districts was a vast increase in annual state education aid, and total funding as high as all but a handful of super-wealthy elite suburban districts, and more than most districts.  That was a staggering turnabout from the pre-Abbott years when mostly poor, minority and educationally at-risk students isolated in our urban schools were receiving half or less as much for their education as mostly white, well-to-do and educationally advantaged students in high-wealth suburban districts, often adjacent to the urban districts.

The Abbott money was spent, at least initially, on “whole-school” or other systematic reforms, not on piecemeal funding. It was spent on a system of high-quality, full-day preschool programs for all three- and four-year-olds, clearly a national model. It was spent on so-called wrap-around services designed to fill gaps beyond traditional schools.  Those services included counseling, medical and nutritional assistance, and more recently extended school days and school years. In many cases, schools became community centers, the hubs of a wide assortment of activities. Abbott also spawned the largest capital program in state history designed to rehabilitate or replace virtually every Abbott district school.

In my view, the evidence indicates—and you have to look to evidence not self-serving rhetoric—that we have made major steps forward, but the progress has been incomplete and uneven.  The fact that four of the state’s largest urban school districts—all Abbott districts—are under state operation, three of them for periods ranging between 20 and 26 years makes the record difficult to read.

What else have we failed to do? We have not won the state over to this cause. The state has opposed our efforts in court and in other forums far more often than it has supported them. At the risk of making my comments seem politically partisan, I have to say that, in my experience, the executive branch reaction has been far different when the governor has been a Democrat than when he or she has been a Republican.  The Democratic governors—Byrne, Hughes, Florio, McGreevey, Codey and Corzine—seem to have genuinely accepted the principle that poor, at-risk students need and deserve adequate educational funding although their implementation of the principle was often insufficient. By contrast, the Republican governors—Cahill, Kean, Whitman, DiFrancesco and Christie–seemed at most to pay lip service to the principle and to strongly resist allocating sufficient funding for “other people’s children.”  That has been so although Cahill, Kean and Whitman were said to be moderate, even progressive, Republicans.

The result of the State’s inability or unwillingness to rise to the challenge has been almost 45 years of continuous litigation, with the State expending untold millions of dollars unsuccessfully defending a series of school funding laws found unconstitutional, as we lawyers say, either as “applied” or “facially.” The litany of those laws is impressive, but tragic; there have been the State School Aid Law of 1954, the State School Incentive Equalization Aid Law of 1970, the Public School Education Act of 1975, the Quality Education Act of 1990, the Comprehensive Educational Improvement and Financing Act of 1996, and the School Funding Reform Act of 2008.  Only two of those six laws passed constitutional muster on a “facial” basis—the 1975 act and the 2008 act—and they were later struck down, at least in part, “as applied.”

But problems with the State go much further. Not matter what school funding law has been in effect, the executive and legislative branches have rarely fully funded it, and, whatever the level of funding, annual appropriations decisions are usually made at the 11th—if not 12th—hour making it impossible for school districts to engage in any meaningful educational planning.

There are basic structural problems as well. One is that our devout reliance on a shared state-local funding system, with a much lower percentage of state funding than most states and vastly disparate local property taxing capacity, has been at the heart of our inability to produce a constitutional state funding law.

By contrast, a core element of Ontario’s successful reform effort was to replace shared provincial (state)/local funding with a fully provincial system—and a consensus that more money had to go to educationally needy students.

Another set of structural defects relates to our manifest inability to create and implement an “efficient system of free public schools.”  Since 1875, our state constitution has explicitly made the Legislature responsible for maintaining and supporting a “thorough and efficient system of free public schools for the instruction of all the children in the State between the ages and five and eighteen years.”

Whatever New Jersey public schools might be, it is inconceivable that anyone could seriously characterize them as part of an “efficient system.”

We have far too many undersized districts, close to half of them too small to maintain a K-12 system and about 25 too small to run even a single school. Despite periodic efforts at consolidation, our New Jersey love affair with localism has been much too passionate to overcome. As many describe it, restructuring of school districts, and for that matter municipalities, is a “political third rail” not to be approached.

By contrast, another important element of Ontario’s recent reform has been to consolidate schools.  It now has 75 districts, down from 135, for 2.1 million students; we have more than 600 districts for less than 1.4 million students.  For the math whizzes among you, that comes to about 30,000 students per district in Ontario and about 2,200 students per district in New Jersey. Is it any wonder our local property taxes are astronomically high?

We have far too much homogeneity of pupil populations from district to district and, therefore, far too much segregation, much of it extreme.  For example, 26% of our black students attend schools that Professor Gary Orfield has labeled “apartheid schools,” having less than 1% white students. Although it gets less attention, even in an era where “reverse discrimination” has become a household phrase, we have equally big problems with districts that are “reverse-segregated,” populated almost entirely by wealthy white students.  And, in much of the state, these districts, segregated by race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status, literally sit side-by-side.

By the way, New Jersey has by far the strongest state law in the country requiring racial balance in the schools “wherever feasible.”  How do we explain the coexistence of that constitutional requirement with one of the nation’s worst records of school segregation? When she was chief justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court 11 years ago, Deborah Poritz put it more gently than I would; she said in an opinion involving school segregation that “As a state, we are losing ground….We have paid lip service to the idea of diversity in our schools, but in the real world we have not succeeded.”  The situation is no better today.

Yet another huge problem is the capacity of the state education department to do its traditional job, let alone be responsible for operating four large and complex urban districts.  A former state commissioner of education, Bill Librera, said often and publicly that the department was being loaded with major additional responsibilities as it was being stripped of financial and staff resources.

Finally, there’s a problem afflicting our state and its education of poor, minority children that is national in scope.  We seem committed to an education “reform” agenda that ignores both the best evidence and commonsense. My sabbatical year study of successful education reform in other countries led me to conclude that the reform agenda in places like Ontario and Finland is almost identical, even though in many ways those places are quite different from one another.  And their agendas are almost 180 degrees different than the U.S. and New Jersey agenda.  Serious discussion of this is a topic for another day and another presentation, but let me give you just a nutshell or Cliff Notes version.

At the heart of our agenda is standardized testing, which is high stakes for students, teachers, schools and school district. It supposedly is designed to do many things, including to serve as a vehicle for identifying inadequate teachers and purging the schools of them.  On a parallel track, we are seeking to reduce, if not eliminate, teacher tenure, seniority and other protections, and ultimately to undermine teacher unionization.  The staffing gaps created will be filled by mostly short-term Teach for America corpsmen, who receive just a few weeks of training before being placed in some of the country’s and state’s most challenging classrooms.

Another prime use of standardized test results is to label schools as “failing,” thereby justifying their “turnaround” or their closing, to be replaced by charter and experimental schools, some of them run ultimately by for-profit companies. And speaking of for-profit, there are massive corporate conglomerates like Pearson that know a good thing when they see—or create—one. As I understand it, Pearson creates text books and on-line materials presenting the curriculum standards that supposedly inform the standardized tests.  Pearson also creates the tests, scores them and mentors the students who don’t perform well on them.

How are things different in Ontario, whose students are the highest performing English-speaking students in the world on the international PISA tests, and in Finland, which has been a perennially high-performing nation on PISA?  They give virtually no standardized tests to their students.  Perhaps they know, as we seem not to, that socioeconomic status is the strongest predictor of scores on standardized tests. They also may appreciate more than we do how fiendishly difficult it is to create valid, reliable and culture-free standardized tests, let alone to equate results from different versions of the same test or, harder still, from one test to another.

Our friends at ETS can tell us a great deal about that since they are among the very best of the world’s test creators.

Instead of focusing on the extensive use of standardized tests of uncertain and uneven quality for high stakes, rather than diagnostic, purposes, Ontario and Finland focus on aggrandizing and professionalizing teaching, with both countries now requiring that entry-level teachers have two-year masters’ degrees in education beyond strong undergraduate degrees. These highly professional teachers, rather than ever-changing standardized tests, are the primary accountability agents in their classrooms where it really counts.

By the way, most teachers in those countries belong to unions that play an active role in high-level education policy discussions. Teachers also enjoy strong tenure and other job protections.

In neither country is there a significant charter or experimental school presence.  Mainstream public schools dominate the education landscape and are held in high esteem by the public as are teachers.

Policymakers, researchers and those engaged in teacher preparation in both places regularly expressed to me mystification at how anyone serious about education and knowledgeable about what works could embrace U.S.-style reform. Indeed, in my interviews I heard a lot about recent acknowledgments that school choice and school privatization efforts have failed in a number of places that had been poster children for them, such as Sweden and Chile.

So, my bottom line is that we need to redouble our efforts to preserve and extend our successful efforts at education reform through approaches such as Abbott v. Burke.  But we also need to enlarge and diversify our reform efforts so that they reach all the other areas that negatively impact the many poor children in our midst, and so that they have a strong grass roots dimension to supplement the litigation dimension.

In other words, we need to commit ourselves to reach out, in every way possible, to support “other people’s children.”  In a very real sense, they are all “our children.”

Justice, fairness and equity demand that, but so does enlightened self-interest. We have already reached the point in New Jersey where children of color are a majority of our public school population.  As a state, we will succeed or fail based on how effectively we support and nurture those children, and how warmly we welcome them into our midst.

Thank you.

  1. Very informative article. I am interested in reading his studies regarding reform.
    Testing has just “dumbed” down our teaching. As a former staff developer it was sad to see that teachers were being taught test taking strategies to incorporate in their daily lessons rather than stressing good teaching strategies. Our students were made into testing robots with a lack of common knowledge and skills really needed to survive and excel in society.
    As I and many “older” educators know: years ago we looked to our mentors in the educational field and in our schools to help us improve our teaching. How can we do that now if most administrators and teachers have less than 5 years of experience. I also studied in NYC and had 5 years to acquire my Masters Degree in order to maintain my liscense. That was an excellent foundation to foster in me a want to futher pursue classes beyond my Masters to keep me abreast of current theories and practices in education. It makes the teacher a life long learner always wanting to search for better ways to improve their teaching.
    Also having lived in a poor area myself as a young child, it is difficult to see the quality of teaching blamed on all the problems in our public schools. Our urban children have many issues to deal with and still many of them excel. Why aren’t these students ever highlighted? Yes my second graders at a very “POOR” urban school in Newark were reading at a 5th grade level. Was that because of poor teaching? NO it was because the teachers cared and the parents despite all their issues helped support their child academically. That is the difference.
    I also observe the mess made with our Bilngual and Special Needs students. Where is quality education under the law for these children now?
    Thank you Mr. Braun for all you do to keep the public informed. It is greatly appreciated.

  2. Perhaps the Education Law Center could bring some suits now that would put some of the reform politicians and criminals in jail and bring an end to these horrible policies?

  3. Thank you.

  4. This piece is shamefully incomplete.

    Where to begin?

    Abbott directly has led to the state’s pension disaster.
    When Florio pushed through the Quality Education Act he relied on three things to fund it
    1. Making the wealthiest 220 districts in NJ pay for retiree pensions.
    2. Huge shifts of aid out of those same 220 districts.
    3. Raising taxes on all New Jerseyans. The tax increase was the largest proportional state tax increase in US history.

    There was a voter rebellion. Even many beneficiaries of the redistribution of state aid were infuriated by the tax increases and Florio’s arrogance and secrecy.

    Republicans took over the legislature. They refused to allow the massive aid losses to suburban schools that Florio and the ELC wanted. The Republicans worked with the NJEA to reverse Florio’s plan to have local districts pay teacher pensions.

    Florio and the NJ Supreme Court would not allow the Abbotts to lose money, so Florio and the legislature passed the PEnsion Reavaluation Act of 1992. The PEA changed the actuarial valuation of the pensions and raised expected returns. Due to that Act, NJ made $1.5 billion less in pension payments than it would otherwise.

    This was the beginning of NJ’s pension crisis. NJ’s subsequent governors made things even worse, but the problem began under Florio. The pension crisis is a result of Florio/Abbott-level spending combined with Whitman/pre-Florio-level taxes.

  5. Two:
    Appalling unfairness to low-resource non-Abbotts and there has been no update to the list of Abbott districts, even as Jersey City and Asbury Park have become middle-resource and Hoboken has become ultra-high resource.

    The Abbott regime benefits the Abbotts and only the Abbotts. Districts that are nearly as poor usually get one-quarter or one-third as much money.

    Take Guttenberg and Jersey City for example:

    In Guttenberg 82% of students are FRL eligible. In Jersey City 75% of students are FRL eligible. Guttenberg’s per capita income is $33,000 and the schools have $443,000 in valuation per student (adjusted for being a K-8 district). Jersey City’s per capita income is $30,490 and its schools have $551,000 in valuation per student.

    Despite the fact that Jersey City is slightly richer, the state gives Jersey City drastically more money – $13,836 versus $3,834 per student for Guttenberg. Despite similar needs, Guttenberg’s per student spending is $11,116. Jersey City’s is $17,859.

    Guttenberg only get $149,000 in Pre-K money. Barely enough for ten kids. Jersey City gets $67.5 million.

    More examples:

    – Perth Amboy is 64% FRL eligible. As an Abbott it receives $13,425 per student. Carteret is 63% FRL eligible and receives $7,261. Total spending in Perth Amboy is $15,759 per student, total spending in Carteret is $11,721.
    – Passaic is 80% FRL eligible. As an Abbott it receives $16,898. Prospect Park, a non-Abbott, is 75% FRL eligible and receives $9,372 per student. Total spending in Passaic is $16,944 per student. Total spending in Prospect Park is $12,140.
    – Elizabeth is 88% FRL eligible. As an Abbott it receives $15,931. Its neighbor Hillside is 58% FRL eligible and receives $7,243 per pupil. Total spending in Elizabeth is $17,444 per pupil, total spending in Hillside is $13,925 per pupil.
    – Irvington is 69% FRL eligible. As an Abbott it receives $16,395. Belleville is 52% FRL eligible and receives $5,394 per pupil. Total spending is $16,825 in Irvington. Total spending in Belleville is $10,868 per pupil.

    These listings underestimate the disparities, since the Abbotts get the state to pay for almost all capital costs.

    As the state’s budget crisis deepens (which Paul Tractenberg doesn’t seem to care about), the unsustainability of the Abbott regime is getting even worse.

    For 2015-16 the state was only able to find an additional $5 million for K-12 aid, nearly all for Interdistrict Choice. However, on the Pre-K front there were no limits. Jersey City got another $3 million. Hoboken got another $100,000.

    Jersey City’s Pre-K population is projected to increase by 25% over the next five years. If that happens it will cost the state ~$17 million.

    If the state puts all new tax revenues into pensions, than that additional $17 million for Jersey City will be taken away from non-Abbotts and poor non-Abbotts will lose aid.

    The Abbott decision was never financially sustainable for NJ. It was accommodated for 25 years by underfunding pensions. The Abbott decision appallingly left behind poor kids living in non-Abbotts.

    Now the state is in the worst fiscal crisis it has ever seen (the full actuarial payment we should be making is $5 billion and we can’t even come up with a fifth of that.) The Abbott decision is one cause of this mess and if the “parity plus” funding of the Abbotts is not reduced than non-Abbotts will severely suffer.

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