New Jersey's Abbott Districts

To reduce the glaring academic and funding inequities in low-income, predominantly minority school districts, education advocates in an increasing number of states are turning to the courts to speed up badly-needed reforms.  Many of these legal challenges are based on mandates -- included in many state constitutions -- to provide an adequate education to all public school students.

In New Jersey, civil rights attorneys from the non-profit Education Law Center brought one of the nation's most well-publicized "adequacy lawsuits" on behalf of more than 300,000 school age children and 60,000 pre-schoolers in 31 of the state's lowest-income and highest minority urban school districts.

A bunch of kids smile for the camera.

The landmark New Jersey Supreme Court decision in this case, Abbott v. Burke, successfully challenged the state's compliance with its constitutional mandate to provide a "thorough and efficient education" for all its students.

Described by The New York Times as "perhaps the most significant education case since the Supreme Court's desegregation ruling nearly 50 years ago," the court decisions in Abbott have brought about one of the nation's most ambitious sets of reforms -- and an ongoing implementation process that continues to challenge advocates and policy makers alike.

Explains David Sciarra, the Education Law Center's executive director and the lawyer who argued the case, "the real challenge is making sure that all of the additional resources the court ordered are directly benefiting the kids who need them."

The 1997 and 1998 New Jersey Supreme Court rulings in this case, commonly referred to as Abbott IV and Abbott V, lay out a detailed reform plan -  what Sciarra describes as the framework "for what adequacy should look like."

The plan starts with a fundamental requirement for a strong "foundational education" -rigorous new academic standards supported by increased per-pupil funding that is equal to spending in the most affluent and highest-achieving suburban schools.

These new requirements include a richer curriculum shaped by state content standards, reduced class sizes, and new professional development opportunities for teachers.  To make sure that students are actually achieving these improved educational outcomes, the court also required a detailed set of accountability measures to track academic progress and the "effective and efficient" allocation of funds.

Because the achievement gap for many low-income and minority students begins even before they reach elementary school, the Abbott decision took the unusual step of requiring universal, high-quality preschool education for every three- and four-year-old child in New Jersey.

In particular, the court required the use of an age-appropriate pre-school curriculum linked to existing K-12 standards and a maximum class size of 15.  District-supervised programs must also meet the needs of local communities and rely on local community providers who are "capable and willing" to meet state standards.

The effort is comprehensive and also expensive.

"The reality is that if you want to do high quality pre-school, it's going to cost a lot," says Sciarra. "The investment has to be substantial if you want to make a difference."

In addition to a strong curriculum and increased funding levels, the reform plan also provides for an array of supplemental programs - tutoring and other K-12 services and supports specifically designed to help underserved low-income and minority youth catch up with their more affluent peers.

"When you concentrate so many poor kids in one school or district, you need more than a basic educational foundation," explains Sciarra. "You also need an extra layer of supports."

To that end, districts that can demonstrate additional community needs can also request additional funding to pay for new social and health services that enhance student learning and support families.

While often overlooked in many adequacy implementation efforts, improved facilities also play an important role in the Abbott decisions.  In particular, the court required the state to provide new or rehabilitated buildings that eliminate school overcrowding and provide adequate space for both the standards-based curriculum and the supplemental programs.

The state has spent more than $600 million to eliminate 95% of current health and safety violations.  In addition, the New Jersey Department of Education has approved 532 construction projects - 236 of these projects are either complete, under construction, or "in development."

In these and all aspects of New Jersey's adequacy framework, the court has also established accountability standards to ensure the effective and timely implementation of reforms.

Five years into the implementation process, however, serious challenges remain.  The most obvious is sustaining adequate funding levels in a complex political environment.

"The problem is not just getting the right funding level in the first place, it's maintaining it," explains Sciarra.  "We go through a tough budget fight every single year, and that's not going to change anytime soon."

In addition to improving individual districts' capacity to meet the new standards and encourage broader community outreach, more must also be done to revamp the governance structure of the state's department of education so it can better manage the complexities of the reform effort.

Underlying all of this is an overarching need to refocus the attention of taxpayers and policy makers on what it really takes to improve student outcomes. "No matter where you are in this work, the issue of framing becomes extremely important," says Sciarra. "We need to move away from a focus on 'failing schools' and look instead at what schools need to help children succeed."