Governor Christie v. The Children Of New Jersey: Political Racism?

Today's guest author is Michael Holzman.

Public education in the state of New Jersey currently includes a system of equitable funding to meet the state constitutional mandate to provide a "thorough and efficient education" for all students. The system was put in place as a result of a lawsuit, Abbott v. Burke, that began over 30 years ago. The plaintiffs in that lawsuit successfully claimed that schools serving children living in poverty -- children whose parents themselves had not been well educated -- must have additional resources from the state to match those provided by wealthier families, if those students were to succeed in school and break the cycle of poverty.

According to the Education Law Center, schools in the 31 impoverished districts covered by the Abbott rulings now receive adequate K-12 foundational funding, universal preschool for all 3- and 4-year old children, supplemental or at-risk programs and funding, and school-by-school reform of curriculum and instruction.

University of California education policy expert David Kirp has written extensively about the remarkable success of the Union City school district, one of those supported by Abbott funding. His research and that of the Education Law Center and others indicate that New Jersey's Abbott-based system of school funding is a national model for supporting equity of opportunity in our increasingly inequitable society.

The U.S. Department of Education's National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is the standard measure of educational achievement. During the decade from 2003 to 2013, the percentage of New Jersey eighth-grade students eligible for national lunch programs - that is, those from impoverished families - scoring "proficient" and "advanced" on NAEP's reading test increased from 16% to 27%, while the percentage scoring "below basic" fell from 44% to 26%. The gap between Black and White students narrowed from 28 points to 20. This would appear to be good evidence that the Abbott model is effective.

The reason that additional funding for the education of children living in poverty is needed is that their families are poor: they cannot afford to pay for the sort of educational opportunities that wealthier families take for granted: high quality preschool, houses full of books and computers, private lessons after school, tutoring, trips to Europe. Abbott funding does not cover trips to Europe, but it does pay for "a thorough and efficient education," or something close to it.

Governor Christie now wishes to redistribute the funds used to level the playing field for New Jersey students living in poverty to districts enrolling students from wealthier families. He calls this "fairness."

Governor Christie is married to an investment banker. As a lawyer and lobbyist, he represented utility companies and the securities industry. This allows Christie's children to benefit from life among the multi-million dollar houses in Mendham, New Jersey, where the population is 96% White and 1% Black. The average family in Christie's neighborhood has an annual income over $150,000. The student-teacher ratio in the primary schools is 12-1, rising to only 14-to-1 in the nearby high school. Under Christie's plan, average property taxes in his own town would fall by about 20% and average per student state support would rise about 300%. In the Abbott district of Newark, for example, per student spending would be cut by more than half. Such is "fairness" in Christie's New Jersey.

The Christie children are growing up in an environment of significant privilege, as befits the children of a governor and an investment banker. Each child is set to go through life with the social resources of a network of similarly situated friends and with the cultural and educational resources typified by their town's Westmont Montessori School, where education starts at age 15 months.

One would think that a public servant would wish that even the poorest of the children in his official care would have the opportunities available to his own children and those of his friends.

Apparently not.

Note from Eric Cooper:

In the state of New Jersey, equitable public school funding was put into place as a consequence of the Abbott v. Burke lawsuit. The success of the funding program on communities of color and those struggling with poverty is incontrovertible. The organization I represent (National Urban Alliance for Effective Education) has had extensive experience in Newark, the state's largest city. With Newark we were able to secure dramatic improvement for special education students, as well as improve the trajectories of K-12 students. At one of the high schools we were afforded the opportunity to work with Ras Baraka, a successful principal, and the son of the poet Amiri Baraka. Mr. Baraka is now the Mayor of Newark. There is no better advocate for schoolchildren than Ras. He knows the importance of securing funding for those students who are dependent on schools for improving their life trajectories due to the poverty they are born into. Abbott enabled tens of thousands of students to lead hopeful lives rather than experience the hopelessness and despair for far too many New Jersey children mired in poverty, and stymied by the vestiges of institutional racism in housing communities, education, transportation and the criminal justice system.

It is a sad day for equity and opportunity in New Jersey that Governor Christie has decided to overturn America's most important education lawsuit. Given his national prominence in the Trump campaign, one could have hoped he would have proudly advocated for the positive effects that the lawsuit has had on student performance in his state.

As Dr. Holzman suggests, "apparently not."