Other People’s Children
Did it work?
Sooner or later, every conversation about New Jersey’s school-funding battle arrives at that perfectly reasonable, deceptively simple question. Were they worth it, all those years of litigation and legislation and angry argument? Did Abbott v. Burke succeed?
Given Abbott’s tortuous journey, it is no surprise that answering that question remains far more difficult than asking it, for reasons both practical and philosophical. Although the state supreme court has called more than once for an independent evaluation of the Abbott remedies, to date the state has never commissioned one. Lawyers, bureaucrats, and scholars have failed to reach consensus on the goals and methods of such a study, and even if such a consensus does eventually emerge, any research project launched years into the reform effort will have to proceed without benefit of baseline data. Red tape also repeatedly delayed the creation of a statewide database capable of tracking individual students over time, information increasingly seen as crucial to education research. The database was expected to be ready only in 2007.
Perhaps more important than these practical roadblocks, however, is a philosophical problem: the criteria for judging Abbott’s effectiveness— what it would mean to say that Abbott “worked”—remain as contested as anything in the long history of New Jersey’s school-funding fight.
The supreme court’s 1990 Abbott II ruling implicitly proposed one standard for evaluating the success of the reform effort the court was about to set in motion. Poor urban districts, Chief Justice Robert Wilentz