Providing an equal educational opportunity for all students requires funding public schools at levels sufficient to provide a rigorous curriculum, in a broad range of subject areas, delivered by well trained teachers, and supported by effective school and district leaders. This also requires sufficient funds for schools serving high numbers of low-income students, English-language learners, and students with other special needs. Concentrated student poverty in schools generates greater needs that, in turn, require resources to support effective programs and strategies, such as high quality early education, full-day kindergarten, after-school and summer-school programs, and smaller classes in the early grades.
How we fund our public schools is, therefore, fundamental to the national effort to ensure that all students have access to high quality educational opportunities that prepare them to assume the responsibilities of citizenship and to succeed in the economy. Sufficient school funding, fairly distributed to districts to address concentrated poverty, is an essential precondition for the delivery of a high-quality education in the 50 states.
For over 30 years, ELC has led the effort for fair school funding in New Jersey. In the landmark Abbott v. Burke case, ELC secured groundbreaking rulings by the New Jersey Supreme Court in 1997 and 1998, equalizing funding in the poorest urban communities with successful suburban districts to support rigorous, standards-based K-12 curriculum. The Court also directed the State to provide additional funding for "supplemental" programs to address needs arising from concentrated student poverty; these programs included preschool, full-day kindergarten, intensive early literacy, and social and health services.
Current Issues in New Jersey
In 2008, the New Jersey Legislature enacted a statewide school funding formula, the School Funding Reform Act (SFRA). The SFRA is a "weighted student formula." The formula delivers state and local funding driven by a “base cost,” or the per pupil amount necessary to support the core curriculum program for every student regardless of need. The formula also delivers extra funding to support programs for poor (at-risk) students, limited-English proficient (LEP) students, and students with disabilities, regardless of where those students live. These extra funds are calculated as a percentage of the base cost, called a "weight." Under the SFRA, every district has a "weighted student enrollment," where students are counted for purposes of generating state and local revenue using the base cost plus the weights reflecting unique student needs.
Following passage of SFRA, the State asked the NJ Supreme Court to declare the formula constitutional and to have the specific funding remedies ordered in the 1997 Abbott IV and 1998 Abbott V rulings declared “no longer necessary.” In 2009 (in Abbott XX), the Court, based on a report by a special master judge, found the SFRA constitutional not just for students in the Abbott districts, but for all students statewide. The Court directed implementation of the new formula, but imposed two conditions on the State for "continuing constitutionality:" a) the formula must be fully funded for the first three years; and b) the formula must be thoroughly reviewed to determine if it is working properly, and make any needed adjustments based on that review.
In June 2010, the NJ Legislature adopted Governor Chris Christie's proposed FY11 budget, cutting over $1.1 billion, or almost 15%, in state aid from the SFRA formula. In July 2010, ELC, on behalf of the Abbott Plaintiffs, filed a motion with the NJ Supreme Court to enforce the conditions established in the Abbott XX ruling, given these budget cuts. After oral arguments on the motion, the Court ordered an expedited hearing at the trial court level on the issue of whether districts could still deliver a thorough and efficient education as required by the constitution with the cuts in state aid. After two weeks of hearings, the Special Master in the case, Judge Peter Doyne, filed his report on March 22, 2011, finding unequivocally that schoolchildren across the state are not receiving a constitutional education.
On May 24, the New Jersey Supreme Court issued the Abbott XXI ruling, concluding that the State had violated its Abbott XX directive for full funding of the SFRA formula for the first three years. The Court also ordered the State to fully fund the formula for next year -- 2011-12 -- but limited the scope of the ruling to Plaintiffs, the 31 urban (former Abbott) districts. ELC had sought to enforce the full funding mandate for, at the very least, approximately 240 districts spending below the "adequacy" level set by the SFRA.
ELC remains in the forefront of the advocacy effort to ensure fair school funding for all New Jersey students, especially at-risk students, English language learners, and students with disabilities.
Advancing Fair School Funding Across the Nation
ELC also leads a national effort for fair public school funding. ELC produced and published the report, Is School Funding Fair?, ranking all 50 state school finance systems on four “fairness” measures: funding level, funding distribution relative to poverty, fiscal effort, and coverage.
ELC’s Education Justice national program also provides information and research to policymakers, advocates and stakeholders on the school funding systems in the 50 states, including information on legal issues and litigation. ELC also sponsors the “Litigators Workshop,” an annual meeting of lawyers representing plaintiffs in school finance and other educational equity cases.
ELC Publications on School Funding
Linking Standards to Resources (March 2014)
Is School Funding Fair? A National Report Card (January 2014)
For more, visit the Publications page.
Lost Opportunity: A 50 State Report on the Opportunity to Learn in America, Schott Foundation (2009)
School Finance 101 (Dr. Bruce Baker’s Blog)
For information on school funding in New Jersey, please visit the School Funding Data page of the website.
In the landmark Abbott v. Burke case, ELC secured groundbreaking rulings by the New Jersey Supreme Court. In fact, the Abbott decisions have been called the most important equal education rulings since Brown v. Board of Education. To date, there have been twenty-one NJ Supreme Court decisions in the Abbott case.
ELC News Stories on School Funding
For a complete list of stories, visit the School Funding section of the News Archives page.