Published in the Star-Ledger, Tuesday, November 25, 2008
The Supreme Court's Abbott delusion
BY GORDON MacINNES
The New Jersey Supreme Court dealt a crushing blow to Gov. Jon Corzine and the Legislature with its decision to re tain its own formula for funding poor school districts, at least for this year. The court's decision effectively kills the plan to improve educational opportunities for poor children who happen not to live in the 31 Abbott districts recognized by the court.
That the court invited the Abbott districts to seek more funding on top of the new school aid for mula -- despite a looming $5 billion deficit -- only accelerates New Jersey's collision with bankruptcy.
Perhaps most disturbing is the court's lack of any doubt about the so-called "remedies" that it ordered 10 years ago in an effort to close the achievement gap between poor and affluent children. It proceeds as if the 1998 court decision had finally solved a problem that has nagged the nation for four decades. The justices appear to think that if only the Abbott districts continue implementating [sic] these remedies and the administration and Legislature provide more funding, the goal of a "constitutional" education will be achieved.
One would hope that, after 35 years of litigation and the expenditure of billions of additional dollars, the court would show more curiosity about why poor kids in the Abbott districts do not perform better and why the gap persists. All branches of New Jersey's government should face some inescapable realities.
Abbott is supposed to be about inequities that constrict the educational opportunities of poor children residing in poor districts. Un happily, 50 percent of New Jersey's poor children reside outside the Abbott districts. Moreover, Abbott districts like Hoboken, Burlington City, Phillipsburg, Neptune Township, Pemberton and Garfield are much less disadvantaged than many non-Abbott districts.
The court expects New Jersey's poorest districts to accomplish something that has not been achieved anyplace, despite 40 years of programs, remedies, reforms and other panaceas. No district or state has succeeded in closing the educational gap between poor, predominantly minority students and affluent, predominantly white stu dents.
The primary reason these efforts have not succeeded is the failure of courts, advocates, bureaucrats and governors to define accurately and concretely the problem to be solved.
Children from poor families ar rive at kindergarten with too little general knowledge and vocabulary and too few ideas to start reading and writing in first grade. This is the gap that most districts never close. The court, to its credit, recognized this problem and ordered high-quality preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds in Abbott districts. "High quality" is what matters, and it takes time, focus, talent and persistence to bring it about in every preschool classroom. Despite the new formula tripling the number of districts that must provide preschool, the Corzine administration has reduced the staff that provides this crucial training.
The court-ordered remedies of 1998 reflected the latest in educational fashion. In particular, the justices ordered that every elementary school adopt a model of "whole school reform" based on the testimony and research of the designer and chief salesman of one such model. The problem was that none of the models was aligned to New Jersey's then-new curricular requirements, so that, even if those were perfectly implemented, Abbott students would continue to fail (and did).
Worse, the court cut out the district central office at just the time its leadership was essential to give coherence to the implementation of hundreds of new curricular standards. So everyone was focused on the wrong thing.
Abbott funding has helped districts like Elizabeth, Union City, Orange and Perth Amboy achieve dramatic improvements in student performance, while others have spent more money to no effect. The districts that have concentrated on early literacy and student achievement tend to spend less money than those that have faithfully implemented the court's "remedies."
Camden increased per student spending from $8,300 to $15,400 without any improvement in performance. Distinctions should be made between districts that are focused on improved achievement and those that are not. Instead, all districts have been encouraged by the court to seek more funding.
Courts can determine if funding for schools with concentrations of poor children is equitable, and they should. What courts cannot do is to require classroom instruction. The Abbott decisions overlook entirely that poor Latinos are the fastest- growing population in the Abbott and many other districts. How can jurists decide among several pedagogical approaches to educating students who speak no English and whose parents read no Spanish?
This is a pretty tough nut to crack, but the court felt no compunction about ordering solutions to all sorts of other pedagogical puzzles (to no consistently efficacious result). The court's latest decision was a chance to back out gracefully from such bravado by agreeing that, with all their shortcomings, local districts are better positioned to deal with the stu dents in their charge and should be given the responsibility to do so.
The overriding reality is that New Jersey and the nation are tapped out. No one is sure how deep or long this Great Recession will be. Other states have acted quickly to reduce spending. New Jersey's time will come, presumably. When it does, additional costs of hundreds of millions of dollars from a few school districts will not be welcome.
Gordon MacInnes was the assistant commissioner for Abbott districts at the state Education Department from 2002 to 2007. He is a lecturer at the Woodrow Wilson School and a fellow at the Century Foundation, which will publish his book on Abbott next month.
Online story here.
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- Plainfield resident since 1983. Retired as the city's Public Information Officer in 2006; prior to that Community Programs Coordinator for the Plainfield Public Library. Founding member and past president of: Faith, Bricks & Mortar; Residents Supporting Victorian Plainfield; and PCO (the outreach nonprofit of Grace Episcopal Church). Supporter of the Library, Symphony and Historic Society as well as other community groups, and active in Democratic politics.