LESSONS FROM NEW JERSEY
In a presentation to the Alliance for Excellent Education on November 17th in Washington, D.C., Education Law Center’s Executive Director David Sciarra tackled an urgent question facing the national movement for school funding reform: how to ensure additional funding improves curriculum, teaching and student outcomes, particularly in historically neglected high poverty schools? AEE convened an expert panel at its first annual High School Policy Conference to explore what can be done to drive adequate funding into effective educational programs.
Sciarra discussed the approach taken by the NJ Supreme Court in the landmark Abbott v. Burke rulings. New Jersey had to confront the issue when, in 1997, the Court ordered foundational funding “parity” between thirty high poverty urban school districts and high wealth suburban districts. Since 1997-98, parity level funding in urban districts has been maintained. This year, the “Abbott Districts” are funded at the parity level of $10,700 per pupil.
Sciarra explained how the Abbott rulings link this adequate funding level to a specific framework for education improvement. First, Abbott requires standards-based reform by adopting New Jersey’s curriculum content standards and aligned assessments as a “facially adequate” definition of thorough and efficient education under the State Constitution. The Court also placed the NJ Commissioner of Education under continuing court order to ensure all school funding is “effectively and efficiently” used to improve students’ ability to achieve State content standards.
Second, Abbott requires school-by-school reform by directing all urban elementary schools to adopt “a proven, whole school design,” based on the Success for All model. Because whole school reform directly impacts upon instruction, curriculum and assessment, it is “a remedial measure that can create the opportunity” for students to achieve State content standards.
Early results from these Court-ordered reforms show promising gains in achievement levels by urban students. But the reforms present major challenges in implementation. Some of the challenges ELC, educators and advocates are now addressing include:
- Ensuring effective and efficient use of adequate funding in schools and central offices
- Providing technical assistance to persistently low performing schools
- Developing reforms appropriate for middle and high schools and students
- Building capacity at all levels – State, district, school and community
Abbott offers some concrete ways to link funding to education improvement. Advocates nationwide should consider these in developing funding adequacy remedies for courts and legislatures. But Abbott contains a cautionary lesson: difficult implementation challenges lie ahead even after the fight for adequate school funding has been won.
Director of Policy, Strategic Partnerships and Communications