The public schools enroll 1,370,000 students: 49% White, 24% Latino, and 16% African American, with 38% living in poverty and 4% learning English. The State spends $18,523 per pupil. (Most recent NCES data)
The education article in New Jersey's Constitution requires the Legislature to "provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of free public schools for the instruction of all children in the State between the ages of five and eighteen years." N.J. Const., art. 8, § IV, ¶ 1.
In decisions in Robinson v. Cahill from 1973 to 1976, the New Jersey Supreme Court held that the constitution’s “thorough and efficient” education clause requires the State to ensure equal educational opportunity for school children. Though the Court initially found that the State was not meeting this mandate, after legislative actions, the Court held that the State's revised school finance system was constitutional on its face.
In the 1973 decision in Robinson I, the Court held that “equal educational opportunity for children” is required by the Education Article in the State Constitution and that a “system of instruction in any district of the State which is not thorough and efficient falls short of the constitutional command. Whatever the reason for the violation, the obligation is the State's to rectify it.” The Court also wrote that the “Constitution's guarantee must be understood to embrace that educational opportunity which is needed in the contemporary setting to equip a child for his role as a citizen and as a competitor in the labor market.”
In 1981, plaintiffs filed the landmark Abbott v. Burke school funding case, challenging the State’s failure to adequately fund high poverty, urban school districts. During 30 years of litigation, the New Jersey Supreme Court has issued 21 Abbott rulings, striking down school funding statutes that violated the State's constitutional duty to provide a “thorough and efficient” education to all students. The rulings also directed the implementation of interim funding remedies and, in 2009, approved a statewide weighted student funding formula to replace the Court’s remedial funding measures.
The Abbott rulings established standards for the right to education for New Jersey public school children. In Abbott v. Burke II (1990), the Court held: “A thorough and efficient education requires such a level of education as will enable all students to function as citizens and workers in the same society, and that necessarily means that in poorer urban districts something more must be added to the regular education in order to achieve the command of the Constitution,” [and] “[h]owever desperately a child may need remediation in basic skills, he or she also needs…variety and a chance to excel.”
In Abbott IV (1997), the Court held that the educational content standards prescribed by the Legislature were a facially adequate definition of a constitutional “thorough and efficient” education; disadvantaged children cannot achieve when they are “relegated to buildings that are unsafe and often incapable of housing the very programs needed to educate them;” and, the State’s constitutional vision “presumes that every child is potentially capable of attaining his or her own place as a contributing member in society with the ability to compete effectively with other citizens and to succeed in the economy. The wisdom giving rise to that vision is that both the child and society benefit immeasurably when that potential is realized.”
The Abbott V (1998) decision is the nation’s first ruling requiring universal high quality preschool, and the decision also ordered a State-funded, comprehensive, school construction program.
For more information, see Abbott v. Burke.