“We Do Not Run School Systems”
For seventeen years, the Abbott case had turned on large questions: the role of money in schooling, the power of education to overcome poverty, the fairest way to apportion billions in taxpayer dollars. The 1998 Abbott V ruling changed the terms of the debate, opening a new chapter in New Jersey’s long struggle over equal educational opportunity. The state supreme court had ordered a comprehensive reform package only reluctantly, after a succession of legislatures and executives had failed to act. By surrendering their jurisdiction over the case, the justices had hoped to signal that they did not run the schools, that the hard work of implementing programs was up to the other branches of government. Instead, the ruling’s detailed reform prescriptions inaugurated an era of hand-tohand combat over inches of territory—fierce, technical battles that, in the eight years after Abbott V, would spawn ten more Roman-numeraled court rulings.
The first battleground was the preschool mandate. Nothing in Abbott V had thrilled the Education Law Center more, but even ELC founder Paul Tractenberg thought the court had a tenuous legal basis for ordering halfday classes for poor three- and four-year olds: the New Jersey Constitution’s T&E guarantee explicitly applied only to “all the children in the State between the ages of five and eighteen years.” To extend the entitlement backward, the court had cobbled together an argument based on the CEIFA law’s provision of preschool funding, sidestepping the question of whether preschool were constitutionally required. Then the court had doubled back to add that, since poor children struggled academically