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Abbott History

Section II
Historical Overview of School Reform in the Abbott or Special Needs Districts


Decades of research has portrayed American public schools as deficient and in need of major reform and transformation (Edmonds, 1979; Fullan, 1991; Nunnery, 1998). These studies reveal a disturbing decline in academic achievement among students and a loss in the country’s competitiveness with other nations in the global economy. The concerns engendered by these observations have led to the emergence of public school reform as a national priority. According to Firestone (1997), discussions on reform have pivoted around concepts of equity, efficiency and excellence. Although at times these discussions have centered on only one of these concepts, more often than not all three concepts have been combined to frame a common perspective or analysis. For example, in the early 60’s and 70’s reform efforts focused primarily on school finance, and its contribution to the problems of inequity and underachievement (Pincus, 1974; Wenglinsky, 1998). The underlying concern among reform proponents during this period was the over reliance on property tax as the major source for funding public education. This concern was fueled by the structural anomalies created by the inherent inequities in the property base of affluent and poor districts. Consequently, reform was approached from the perspective of creating equity between districts by introducing changes in the mechanisms in how public education was funded (Pincus 1974).

The 1980’s ushered in a period in which significant shifts occurred in the language and focus of reform. These shifts were influenced by a number of seminal works which documented the failures in American public education. In 1983, A Nation At Risk published by the National Commission on Excellence in Education provided a comprehensive agenda for reforming public education. The report provided recommendations for reform in content areas, standards and expectations, teaching, leadership and fiscal support. A second report from the Department of Education, the American Education Report (1988) re-echoed the Nation at Risk recommendations but went further in calling for public education to address the moral aspects of schooling. Similarly, a number of other reform agendas from a variety of sources offered potential solutions to the dilemmas in public education. For example, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching (1980) under the direction of Ernest Boyer published several studies which led to the development of a comprehensive program of reform identified as the Basic School Program. Overall, this period could be characterized as one in which the move towards standards-based education occurred It was marked by the introduction of systemic changes in curriculum, assessment, professional development and governance structure. An emphasis was placed on creating an unprecedented alignment among all the critical components of schooling which was deemed to be critical if the new standards were to be successfully met (Massell, Kirst, and Hoppe, 1997). Unlike the reform efforts of the sixties and seventies, the reform agendas of the eighties therefore, placed more emphasis on issues of efficiency and excellence as opposed to equity.

Not-with-standing these efforts, the current state of education in the United States clearly identifies the need for a continuous reexamination of public schooling for several reasons. First, changing social forces have increased the pressure on educators to alter traditional delivery systems and pedagogy. For example, the number of students living in single parent households whether through death, divorce or other factors has escalated significantly. Second, the high incidence of teenage-age pregnancy among high school aged adolescents has resulted in schools having to take on more increasingly the affective domain of students’ educational development (Germinario, Cervali, and Ogden, 1992). Third, and not to be eschewed, poverty continues to have a negative effect on educational opportunities and achievement. In fact, according to Nunnery (1998), these effects are becoming more pronounced and visible as the competitive pressures of the global marketplace exacerbate the gap between the well educated and those who are struggling to master the basic skills, skills which are no longer required for the new labor force.

Within the context of New Jersey, the debate as to what pressing reforms are needed in order to ensure that all students receive a through and efficient education has been ongoing for more than twenty-five years. The legislative history has been clear that students in the poorest communities in the State have been placed at considerable educational disadvantages by the way in which public education has been historically funded, and by the failure of the State to redress these disadvantages in a manner that is judicially and educationally sound. In 1998 after a series of previous legal decisions, the State Supreme Court of New Jersey issued its most recent ruling which required the implementation of a number of remedial measures with appropriate funding in the thirty special needs districts.3 These measures are considered to be paramount to the success of students in the states poor urban communities. The following paragraphs present the legislative history behind the current reform.

Legislative History

The New Jersey Constitution mandates that the "legislature shall provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of free public schools for the instruction of all children in the State between the ages of five and eighteen (N.J. Const. Art. V111). However in 1973, in Robinson vs. Cahill (62N.J.473), the State’s statutory mechanism for financing public schools was found to be unconstitutional because of its almost exclusive reliance on property taxes. Historically, under this type of funding schema the disparity between affluent and poor districts was exacerbated in several ways. In response to the unconstitutionality of its funding policies, the New Jersey legislature passed in 1975 the Public School Educational Act. The act resulted in the appropriation of minimum aid to public schools on a per pupil basis.4

However, this new formula for funding public education did not significantly address the long- standing inequities between affluent and poor school districts. Thus, in 1981 a complaint was filed on behalf of students attending public schools in four special needs districts. These districts were Camden, East Orange, Irvington and Jersey City. The complaint pointed to the continued disparities between the wealthy and poor school districts and challenged the constitutionality of the 1975 Act. In 1988, an administrative Law judge declared the 1975 Act to be unconstitutional as applied to the special needs districts because of its contribution to program disparities between property rich and property poor school districts. According to the administrative law judge to whom the case was remanded, students attending schools in the state’s poorest communities did not receive an equal educational opportunity, but rather an opportunity "determined by socio-economic and geographic location" (Supreme Court Syllabus: a-155-97). Both the Commissioner and the State Board of Education disagreed with the judge’s ruling by arguing that (a) there was no relationship between property wealth and per pupil expenditures and (b) that the language of the constitution implied that students were only required to receive an education that would be sufficient for them to participate fully in the labor force.

The Court on direct appeal reversed the Commissioner and State Board of Education’s decision and ordered that the 1975 Act be either amended or new legislation passed to ensure parity in funding. The Court also directed the Commissioner to identify special programs and services that would meet the educational needs of students in poor communities (Abbott II). In response to the Court’s directives, the legislature enacted the Quality Education Act (QEA) of 1990. Under QEA it was determined that the cost of a quality public education in the State of New Jersey would be $6,640 for elementary aged pupils. In seeking to equalize expenditures between rich and poor districts, the state restricted aid to the wealthiest districts and increased aid to the poorest or special needs districts. The increase of aid to the special needs districts was accomplished through the use of a multiplier which added 5% of the amount of education aid a SND district received from the state. However, the five-percent weight was arbitrary and no study was ever done by the Commissioner or Department of Education staff on the level of funding that would be needed for the special needs districts to achieve parity.

In 1994 (Abbott III), the Court found the Quality Education Act to be unconstitutional as applied to the special needs districts. The act was deemed to be unconstitutional because of its failure to both ensure parity and to address the issue of supplemental programs which was previously required in Abbott II. In response to the Court’s rulings, the legislature passed the Comprehensive Educational Improvement and Financing Act (CEIFA) in 1996. With the enactment of CEIFA, the state outlined the basis of a through and efficient education through the development of a set of substantive standards in seven core content areas. These areas were visual and performing arts, language arts literacy, mathematics, science, social studies, world languages and health and physical education. Through the use of a hypothetical model, a per pupil expenditure of $6,720 was estimated to represent what it would cost to deliver a thorough and efficient education based on the core content standards. A district could be considered to be inefficient if its per pupil expenditures exceeded the $6,720 or if it failed to meet the core standards with the T&E amount. CEIFA also contained two special provisions directly affecting educational programming in the special needs districts namely: the Demonstrably Effective Program Aide (DEPA) and the Early Childhood Program Aid (ECPA).5

CEIFA in 1996 (Abbott IV) was judged by the courts to lack the ability to substantively add to the educational opportunities for students attending the special needs schools. The judicial rejection of CEIFA in terms of its constitutionality for the special needs districts was made on several grounds. First, the court noted that the T&E amount based on a theoretical model school district could not adequately address the disparities between affluent and poor districts in the state. Thus, it could not truly be considered to be sufficient for ensuring a thorough and efficient education in all school districts. Given this, the court rejected the T&E amount of $6,720. Second, CEIFA was rejected for its failure to conduct any empirical investigation of the actual needs of students in the special needs districts. By implication, the aid amounts attached to DEPA and ECPA were considered to be arbitrary. Third, CEIFA was rejected because of its failure to take cognizance of the critical issues related to facilities improvement.

On the basis of its judicial rejection of CEIFA, the State Department of Education was directed by the court to assure parity in per pupil expenditures between each Special Needs Districts and the most affluent districts by the 1997-1998 school year. The Department of Education was also directed to implement administrative measures that would guarantee that all expenditures were used to maximize the educational benefits to students attending schools in the Special Needs Districts (SNDs). In addition, the Department was required to address the special educational needs of students in the SNDs through the identification and implementation of supplemental programs. The Supreme Court in remanding the matter to the Superior Court instructed the Superior Court to require the Commissioner to initiate a study and prepare a report with specific findings and recommendations on the unmet social, health and environmental needs of students in the SNDs that must be redressed in order for them to attain a through and efficient education. The report according to the Supreme Court must identify the additional needs of those students, specify the programs required to address those needs, determine the costs and establish a plan for implementing the needed programs. Additionally, the Superior Court was directed to have the Commissioner of Education address the educational capital and facility needs of the special needs districts and to identify the steps that must be taken to address these needs.

In May 1998 (Abbott V), on review of the remand report and recommendations of the Superior Court, the Supreme Court agreed upon a set of remedial measures that it considered must be implemented in order to ensure that public school children in poor urban communities receive the substantive educational entitlement guaranteed in the constitution.

Elements of the Court Ordered Remedial Measures

The current Abbott remedies as ordered by the New Jersey Supreme Court can be divided into four broad substantive categories: standards-based reform, early childhood education, social and health services and other program and facilities improvement (Refer to Table 2.1). The remedies incorporate the elements of equity, efficiency and excellence and attempt to redistribute educational funding within a prescribed formula. Within the standards-based reform context, whole school reform using designated models is required of all schools in three year phases and a governance model of site based budgeting and decision making is further required to guide the implementation of the designated reform model. All school districts are required to implement half day early childhood programs for all three and four year olds, full and extended day programs for three and four year old based on a needs assessment process and full day kindergarten. Comprehensive health, technology and facilities plans are also included as part of the court ordered measures. In total, the remedies represent one of the more far-reaching and comprehensive agenda for the reform of poor school districts in the nation.

Table 2.1
Abbott Remediesa

# Remedy Date/Implementation

Standards-Based Reform

1 Parity with suburbs in per-pupil funding for standards-based education Sept. 1997, ongoing


Standards-based curriculum, assessment, instruction, and professional development Sept. 1997, ongoing


Elementary whole school reform with Success for All as the presumptive model Sept. 1998, 50 schools/Sept. 1999, 100 schools/Sept. 2000, 169 schools


School-based budgeting as part of whole school reform Same as above



Site-based management including parents and teachers Same as above


Standards-based accountability system and state evaluation of whole school reform As soon as feasible


Middle & high school whole school reform based upon developments in research Commissioner decides Sept. 1999

Early Childhood Education


Full-day Kindergarten Sept. 1999


½ day for all 3 & 4 yr olds Sept. 1999


Full/extended day for 3 & 4 yr olds based on local needs assessment Local program plan, state funding

Social & Health Services and other Programs


Health/social service coordination/referral to community-based providers and needs assessment to identify unmet needs Commissioner to provide coordinator in every middle and high school



On-site health/social services where services do not exist in the community or cannot be efficiently and effectively provided outside the school Local needs assessment, local program plan, state funding


After school/summer and nutrition programs based upon local needs assessment Local program plan, state funding


Quality alternative middle and high schools or comparable programs—a dropout prevention specialist at each regular middle and high school Commissioner authorized to implement these programs


School-to-work and college-transition programs Commissioner directed to implement at the request of schools or districts


Enhanced technology based upon local needs assessment Local program plan, state funding


Expanded alternative and school-to-work programs based on local needs assessment Local program plan, state funding

Facilities Improvements




Comprehensive state managed and funded facilities program to correct code violations, eliminate overcrowding, and provide educationally needed spaces

· Jan. 1999 – local plans

· Sept. 1999 – architectural work done

· May 2000 – construction begins


Class size of 15 in pre-K, 21 in K-3, 23 in 4-5 Included in facilities planning


Improve school security based on local needs assessment Local program plan, state funding


Temporary facilities to meet early childhood deadlines Sept. 1998 and 1999, state funding

aTaken from the documents published by the Education Law Center


The current reforms proposed for the Abbott or special needs districts reveal a strong influence of many of the reform concepts embodied in past reform efforts nationwide. There is a concerted attempt to address the key issues of equity, efficiency and excellence in the measures adopted. The scope of what is being proposed places New Jersey in the forefront of educational reform and, if successfully implemented, could begin to redress the long standing problems that have plagued schooling in these districts. The extent to which the Abbot districts philosophically endorse these measures is discussed in the following section.

3 Since the 1998 ruling, two districts have been designated as special needs.

4 Taken from the Supreme Court Syllabus prepared by the Office of the Clerk.

5 The Demonstrably Effective Program Aid (DEPA) provided funds to school districts for instructional , school governance and health and social services. ECPA aid was used to target  programs that would result in the provision of full-day kindergarten and preschool classes, as well as other early childhood services.