By Stuart J. Moskovitz
Abbott Districts. This was a hairbrained idea created in 1985 by the New Jersey Supreme Court and defined in 1997 that determined that the Constitution required that each and every student in New Jersey must have an absolutely equal education. This wasn’t an issue of race or any other means by which we generally define the need for equal education. It was a determination that poorer school districts have less money to pay for education and therefore the State was required to assure that the poorer districts received state funding to equal the amount paid for education by local wealthier districts.
Some flaws were obvious from the beginning.
1. The wealthier districts have an extremely wide range of spending on education per student, so there really is nothing to legitimately compare other than an average, meaning that if we wanted “equal” to mean the average, we would require the state to fund the “poorer” districts to a greater extent than about half of the “wealthier” districts spent on education.
2. There was no evidence that money alone would provide an “equal” education, the education required by the New Jersey Constitution.
3. There are some districts that for reasons any sociologist could have told the New Jersey Supreme Court, would never provide an equal education no matter how much money was thrown at them.
4. This was feel good legislation. Feel good legislation is when we are pretending to create a solution to a problem so that we “feel good” about it, even though deep down we know it is not a solution, but this means we don’t have to actually solve the problem because “we tried.”
5. This was JUDICIAL legislation, where the judiciary usurps the power of the legislature, where the unelected judges of the New Jersey Supreme Court decide statewide spending policy, something reserved by the Constitution to the other two branches of government.
So the Abbott decisions were extraordinarily terrible decisions right at the outset.
Now, had this actually educated the students in those districts, we could all celebrate. We would all celebrate if over the last 32 years more students coming out of those districts became productive citizens, starting businesses, working as professionals and paying taxes, reducing the need for criminal courts, reducing the need for prisons, reducing the need for welfare and medicare and other social services. That would have been fantastic. Only someone on the extreme right could quarrel with that.
But it didn’t.
There is no evidence that a single dollar of Abbott funding, that all of it together, enhanced the education of students in these districts to any measurable degree.
Throwing money at a social problem has never solved the problem. It did not here either. All this was, was a massive redistribution of wealth, taking state tax money paid for by everyone, mostly the wealthy, and distributing it to the poorer districts to minimize the need for people living in those districts to pay property tax to fund education.
If that is the goal, fine, it was accomplished.
But what we have here is a New Jersey Supreme Court justified failure to comply with the Constitutional requirement that there be equal education in New Jersey. There is not. There is not because the state Supreme Court announced over the last 32 years that the Constitution doesn’t mean equal education when it says equal education; it merely means equal funding.
They are wrong. They have been wrong for the last 32 years.
What is needed now, and this is where November’s election comes in and tonight’s debate, is a Commissioner of Education who will bring an action before the Supreme Court armed with facts and statistics showing that the Abbott funding has not accomplished anything and that the State is still in violation of the Constitution because it is not providing equal education, only equal funding. There is one candidate, Phil Murphy, who believes taxes are the answer to everything. As the Abbott situation shows, that is antiquated and false. One candidate, Kim Guadagno, is experienced in state government, knows what works and doesn’t work, and is most likely to appoint a Commissioner of Education who will act to take the burden off of the non-Abbott districts who are now providing hundreds of millions of dollars to be thrown down the drain so that the Supreme Court can feel good about itself.
I wish that was discussed tonight, but if it is not, then everyone reading this (most likely from non-Abbott school districts) should remember what is at stake in November.
It’s time we correct a thirty-two year old very expensive mistake.
Stuart J. Moskovitz, Esq, is a fomer mayor of Manalapan