April 20, 2011; Source: Star-Ledger | Earlier this week the New Jersey Supreme Court heard opening arguments in the case, Abbott v. Burke.  Representing Newark’s Education Law Center, attorney David Sciarra argued that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s cuts in public education would undo the public school aid formula that the court approved in 2009 to ensure that schools in low-income communities received adequate funding.  Representing the state, former Supreme Court Justice Peter Verniero said that the cuts had to be made because of the “state’s dire fiscal condition.”

A new case just being heard by the Court?  Hardly.  The history of Abbott v. Burke started in 1970 with a case called Robinson v. Cahill  contending that the state’s system for financing public education was unfair to poorer districts.  In 1973, the NJ Supreme Court ruled that the state’s heavy reliance on property taxes to pay for public education created and deepened disparities between rich and poor jurisdictions.  In 1975, the state came up with a new system for reducing disparities among districts, although the state wasn’t particularly stunning on providing the funding for the formula.

But in 1981, the Education Law Center filed Abbott v. Burke contending that the state’s formula was still inadequate. Seven years later, the plaintiffs won again, with the courts concluding that the state funding had to be completely overhauled.  That led to a string of follow-up Abbott decisions due to the state’s serial failures to comply with court orders to ensure that kids in urban schools get the same level of funding support and quality school facilities as New Jersey’s astoundingly affluent counties:  among the wealthiest counties in the entire nation, New Jersey’s Somerset County ranks fourth, Hunterdon fifth, and Morris seventh. 

In this latest version of Abbott, Governor Christie has pledged not to raise taxes and is returning to the argument that adequate funding hasn’t equalized school achievement.  Instead of money, Christie proposes ending automatic tenure, changing the process for teacher evaluations, increasing the number of charter schools, and funding a pilot school voucher program.  He is completely opposed to funding the amount missing from the school equalization formula–$1.6 billion—but that is exactly what Sciarra and the nonprofit ELC are asking for.  Verniero said that the lingering recession makes that impossible, although his predecessor under Governor Jon Corzine had argued for full funding, recession or not.

Whether public schools, charter schools, or private schools, without sufficient funding, quality education just cannot be sustained.—Rick Cohen