Sunday, December 6, 2009

Equity litigation and politics (in New Jersey)

In 1970, four New Jersey cities challenged the constitutionality of the state’s school
funding system, arguing that large wealth-based variations in per pupil expenditures across the state’s districts deprived students in low-wealth communities like theirs of a “thorough and efficient” education. Since then, in over 20 decisions handed down over the last 35 years, through Robinson v. Cahill (1973-1976) and later Abbott v. Burke (1985-2005), the New Jersey Supreme Court has sought to ensure that all students in New Jersey, particularly in distressed urban areas, have equal access to a quality education.
“Assessing Success in School Finance Litigation: The Case of New Jersey” is a lucid new telling of of the Robinson and Abbott sequence of cases. Written by Margaret Goertz and Michael Weiss, it's part of a new series from the Campaign for Educational Equity, and available here.

Comparing that story with ours, three things stand out.

First, the 2008 property tax base in the New Jersey's struggling high poverty districts was $455,794 per pupil. In 2007, Kentucky's statewide average assessment was $382,797 and only sixteen districts* had a stronger tax base than those Abbott districts. What the Garden State calls poor, the Bluegrass calls "relatively wealthy."

Second, the original Robinson ruling came in 1973, and the New Jersey court cases are still coming. Here, the Rose ruling came in 1989, and the Kentucky Education Reform Act was law less than a year later.

Finally, New Jersey is a splintered state on issues of school funding. A child in one of the original Robinson districts (East Orange) could walk out of her elementary school and be in one of the state's proudest and wealthiest districts (Glen Ridge) in less than five minutes--but that border is completely sealed if the question is how the two towns' very separate schools should be funded. In Kentucky, the SEEK formula truly has institutionalized the core concept that the state takes the lead in funding our schools, and all our districts have a shared stake in maintaining the SEEK guarantees.

We have our disagreements, our failures, and our unmet needs, but compared to New Jersey, we truly can speak of our commonwealth operating a system of common schools.

* Anchorage ($872,409), Southgate ($705,899), Fayette ($691,096), Boone ($622,251), Campbell ($609,173), Jefferson ($600,863), Lyon ($572,279), Kenton ($543,241), Beechwood ($525,020), Woodford ($524,683), Franklin ($503,754), Shelby ($471,828), Danville ($462,683), Fort Thomas ($458,687), Burgin ($458,224), and Oldham ($457,543).

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Updates and data on Kentucky education!