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NEW JERSEY’S ABBOTT DISTRICTS: STATE ALLOWS SCHOOL FUNDING TO FALL FURTHER BELOW CONSTITUTIONAL LEVELS

March 20, 2019

An Education Law Center research report shows 23, or over two-thirds, of New Jersey’s 31 poor urban, or “Abbott,” school districts have budgets in 2018-19 that are below the State’s “adequacy” level. This means the districts do not have the funding needed to provide their students with a “thorough and efficient” education under the State Constitution, as mandated by the New Jersey Supreme Court.  

The number of “below adequacy” Abbott districts represents a sharp increase over 2008-09, the first year the State implemented a new school funding formula – the School Funding Reform Act (SFRA) – when just 10 Abbott districts had budgets below their constitutional funding levels.

The 23 below adequacy Abbott districts have a total funding gap of over $1 billion. This gap is comprised of shortfalls in both state aid and local property tax revenue, as required by the SFRA formula.

In the 2009 Abbott v. Burke XX decision, the Supreme Court allowed the State to implement the statewide SFRA formula to replace separate funding for the Abbott districts ordered by the Court in 1997 and 1998 to remedy a longstanding and severe violation of the constitutional rights of urban school children found in the Abbott litigation. 

In approving the SFRA, the Court placed great weight on the formula’s “adequacy budgets,” an annual calculation of the funding level needed in each district based on the cost of educating all students and the additional cost of resources targeted to low-income (at-risk) students, English language learners (ELL) and students with disabilities. The Court found that, if fully funded to each district’s adequacy budget, the SFRA provides the teachers, support staff and other resources for all New Jersey students to achieve the State’s academic standards.

The Supreme Court also expressly conditioned the State’s use of the SFRA to fund the Abbott districts on the “expectation” that the Legislature and Executive would fully fund the districts’ SFRA adequacy budgets to the constitutional level of funding. The Court made clear that the State’s constitutional obligation to fully fund the SFRA in the Abbott districts is “not an occurrence in a moment in time,” but “a continuing obligation.” And the Court emphatically warned it would step in and “require remediation of any deficiencies of a constitutional dimension” if the State allowed the Abbott districts “to regress to the former problems that necessitated judicial intervention in the first place.”

Among ELC’s key research findings are:

  • The 23 Abbott districts funded below adequacy serve over 90% of Abbott students and have budgets that range from $381 to $6,150 per pupil below the constitutional level.
  • The Abbott districts continue to enroll approximately 20% of all public school students statewide and a disproportionate share of New Jersey’s low income students (40%), ELLs (54%), and African American and Latino students (40%).
  • Nineteen of the Abbott districts are funded below adequacy due to gaps in state aid, and more than half of these districts have state aid shortfalls of more than $2,000 per pupil.
  • Almost all Abbott districts funded below adequacy have significant gaps in local revenue, or “local levy gaps,” with most exceeding $1,000 per pupil. Yet many of these same districts are in “municipal overburden,” which means they have excessive total equalized tax rates that prevent raising the required amounts of local revenue for their schools. The Supreme Court recognized municipal overburden as a “problem,” emphasizing the State’s obligation “to provide additional aid to those districts unable to raise their LFS [local fair share] in future years.”
  • Abbott district preschool enrollments have stagnated at just over 80% of eligible children. ELC estimates nearly 8,000 three- and four-year-olds are still not receiving the benefit of the Abbott Preschool Program, nearly 20 years after the Supreme Court ordered universal implementation.

Governor Phil Murphy’s proposed FY20 State Budget fails to make much headway towards addressing the growing underfunding of Abbott district adequacy budgets. The Governor’s proposed state aid increase for all districts – approximately $200 million in additional appropriations – barely scratches the surface of the state aid required to close the adequacy gap in the Abbott districts. 

“When our Supreme Court gave the green light to the SFRA in 2009, the Justices anticipated the Legislature would provide the state aid and local revenue to fully fund the Abbott districts’ adequacy budgets in future years,” said David Sciarra, ELC Executive Director. “The Legislature must recognize the heavy burden the Court has placed upon the State to reach and maintain constitutionally adequate funding levels in the Abbott districts by operating the SFRA formula at its optimal level. And the Legislature must now take consequential, not minimal, steps to close the Abbott district adequacy gap and fulfill the promise of the SFRA as the Court expected it would.”

 

Press Contact:

Sharon Krengel
Policy and Outreach Director
skrengel@edlawcenter.org
973-624-1815, x 24