Home > Uncategorized > An Abbott ruling for Delaware

An Abbott ruling for Delaware

February 11, 2012

If we are looking for ways to add stronger programming to disadvantaged schools in Wilmington or elsewhere, an Abbott ruling for Delaware might be a useful goal for advocates.

In 1985, the Education Law Center sued to address state funding disparities for New Jersey’s most disadvantaged school districts (Abbott vs. Burke). The suit was successful, and created a number of Abbott districts in New Jersey:

Abbott districts are school districts in New Jersey that are provided remedies to ensure that their students receive public education in accordance with New Jersey’s state constitution. They were created in 1985 as a result of the first ruling of Abbott v. Burke, a case filed by the Education Law Center. The ruling asserted that public primary and secondary education in poor communities throughout the state was unconstitutionally substandard.[1] There are currently thirty-one Abbott districts in New Jersey.

Prior to 2011, the State of NJ did not release the total amount spent per pupil on schooling. Since the Abbott original ruling in 1985, New Jersey increased spending such that Abbott disctrict students received 22% more per pupil (at $20,859) vs. non-Abbott districts (at $17,051) in 2011.

The basis of the suit was the provision in the New Jersey Constitution stating:

…the Legislature shall provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of free public schools for the instruction of all the children in the State between the ages of five and eighteen years.

Delaware’s constitution has the same provision. […]

It could well be argued that in Wilmington, education at the secondary level is neither efficient nor complete. Since Wilmington is not isolated in its own district, the Abbott principle could be applied to Red Clay and the other city districts as well as to the state. In fact, all the underperforming schools in Delaware should be looked at through the lens of Abbott. Rather than handing extra money to affluent and growing Appoquinimink, perhaps the state could more equitably divert some of that money toward improving Wilmington schools.

The interesting thing about the Abbott ruling (and a series of subsequent rulings) is that it calls for MORE funding for disadvantaged districts if neccessary to assure the “thorough and efficient” school system required by the NJ constitution. The ruling is so ironclad it was even able to reverse Governor Chris Christie’s budget ax:

TRENTON — In a widely anticipated decision, the New Jersey Supreme Court ordered the state to spend an additional $500 million on public education in poor districts next year. […] Christie had argued that the state’s current fiscal woes made it impossible to spend the full amount required by the funding formula approved by the court in 2009.

Still, the majority opinion written by Associate Justice Jaynee LaVecchia said Christie’s cuts to education spending have been “consequential and significant” and must be rolled back. She also wrote that the state, which had promised to fully fund the formula, cannot back away from it when funding poor districts.

This demonstration of teeth in the New Jersey law should help reassure Wilmington residents that if they were to build new middle schools and high schools in the city, an Abbot-style law would keep their fears of isolation and defunding from becoming reality.

In conjunction with Delaware’s neighborhood schools law, an Abbott-style ruling in Delaware could help assure the success of new neighborhood middle schools or high schools in Wilmington.

Critics of the Abbott rulings say that the additional spending has not resulted in improved outcomes. Supporters counter that outcomes do improve at the elementary level, but vanish at the high school level. This path suggests not that the spending is ineffective, but that even more social supports are needed outside the school. The state constitution guarantees equality of opportunity, which the Abbott principle goes a long way to address.

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  1. Coolspringer
    February 12, 2012 at 8:21 pm

    Interesting – adding this policy to my to-read pile for sure! 🙂 Thanks.

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