So long, Abbott

ABBOTT IS dead. The series of state Supreme Court rulings on education funding known as the “Abbott decisions” has been buried. R.I.P.

On Thursday, the state’s high court ruled that Governor Corzine’s new school-funding formula was constitutional. It is a landmark moment for the state — as well as a landmark moment for Corzine.

It is the governor’s innovative approach that changed the formula: Instead of pouring money into the lowest-income districts in the state “by ZIP code,” the money now follows the student. That means the non-Abbott districts with high numbers of low-income children — struggling for years — will now receive more state aid to help them.

Corzine has argued that this is a far more equitable way to reach all children in need. The court agreed, and so do we.

We have long supported the concept of the body of Abbott rulings: that students in the state’s poorest districts deserve as good an education as their counterparts in the richest districts. The court’s past thinking that financial equity would open that door has shaped state education aid for decades. But the results have been decidedly mixed.

In fact, one of the most controversial expenditures for New Jersey taxpayers has been the billions of dollars spent in the 31 Abbott districts, which include Paterson, Passaic and Garfield.

In some cases, education has improved over time: through more teachers and smaller classes, widespread access to quality preschool and increases in test scores, particularly in the early grades. In such districts, the money was spent wisely and Abbott worked. But not in all. In those cases, the court could not overcome the entrenched power of cronyism or the hindrances of poverty itself. We will never know exactly how much of the money was beneficial to the children and how much was wasted.

It is the last concern — the potential for waste, patronage and even corruption — that has fueled the desire for a more workable and more equitable alternative.

The demographics of some of the Abbott districts have also changed. For example, Hoboken, an Abbott district, although woefully mismanaged, is no longer hurting for redevelopment. Millionaires, including the governor, have flocked to the city. But Hoboken is not Paterson or Camden.

It is not just millionaires on the move that have made Abbott a political boondoggle. Non-Abbott districts have long resented what they viewed as the state’s favoritism. And many traditionally middle-class communities are struggling with an influx of poorer students or students with special needs. Abbott was inflexible.

The beauty of Corzine’s formula is that it is not.

For the governor, this is an extraordinary achievement. Up for reelection in November, he is now trailing in the polls. New Jerseyans are buried in taxes, and the state is buried in debt. It has become clear in recent years that the state simply cannot afford to continue sending so much money to so few districts, particularly when almost half of the state’s low-income children attend school elsewhere.

Incrementally, Corzine has been chipping away at Abbott from the beginning of his term. The one notable success of his first attorney general, Zulima Farber, was successfully arguing to the high court that Abbott dollars could not increase during a fiscal crisis. State Attorney General Anne Milgram has argued the case before the high court recently.

Opponents of Corzine’s new formula have argued that it is untested and could leave the Abbott districts with insufficient funds. While ruling against them on Thursday, the court heard their concerns. In their 5-0 ruling, the justices said the new formula is reasonable and fair on its face, but only time will tell if it succeeds.

There is “no absolute guarantee,” the court said, that the new formula will achieve the results that all sides want: providing every child in the state with equal educational opportunity. So an assessment must take place in two years, and if the results are unsatisfactory, the court reserves the right to revisit the case.

Critics of big government will still criticize the new funding plan. School choice supporters want parents to have vouchers that will allow not only the state aid to follow the student, but also allow the student to move to a district’s better schools. That is a discussion for another day. The intent of Abbott and of its replacement, the School Funding Reform Act, is better education everywhere.

The state Supreme Court, which is often criticized for legislating from the bench, ceded responsibility this time to the executive and legislative branches. It wrote that these two political branches of government “are entitled to take reasoned steps, even if the outcome cannot be assured, to address the pressing social, economic and educational challenges confronting our state. They should not be locked in a constitutional straitjacket.”

We agree. Despite the best intentions, Abbott as a whole has not worked. It became a highly politicized system that often failed the students it was supposed to serve.

Thursday’s ruling was a victory for students, for taxpayers and for a beleaguered incumbent in an election year, a victory for Corzine.

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  1. Amanda July 9, 2009

    I agree that this ruling and think that the original Abbott funding did breed waste and corruption. I have taught in Abbott districts for the last 13 years and have seen the money “drip” down from the top. Constantly being told there “is no money for that”. So students still suffered without the books, supplies and technology to help them compete with their suburban peers. I also agree that vouchers are not the answer aiding “some” students to go to private school taking funding away from all students in public school.
    my son goes to school in a district where the district has a good reputation but as an educator I notice that his middle school struggled with dealing with some of the challenges he faced the last couple of years. So this new funding reform act could help schools like his deal with children like him.

    Well done!


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