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Making Abbott reform more fruitful

State has the power to prevent poor spending decisions that undermine urban-school effort

Friday, June 30, 2006

BY DAVID G. SCIARRA

In 1998, the state Supreme Court in the landmark Abbott vs. Burke case ordered a historic package of funding and programs to reverse decades of neglect of our urban public schools. The package includes base funding "parity" with successful suburban schools to support rigorous academic standards, high-quality preschool, extra funds for smaller classes, tutors and after-school programs.

Often overlooked are the court's orders on accountability. The court understood that funding alone can't improve urban education. Even more important is the effective use of funds, along with vigorous implementation of programs and reforms.


To this end, the court ordered the governor, through the  commissioner and Department of Education, to take "affirmative and aggressive" action to make certain urban districts use their funds "effectively and efficiently" so Abbott children can meet state academic standards. This grant of authority and responsibility is constitutional, unlimited and immediate. The court's directive to take "any action necessary" means just that: any action.

The urban districts have made strong progress in getting young children ready for school through the Abbott
preschool program. The achievement gap among Abbott fourth-graders is narrowing, and we've lowered
class size. Some districts are also making good gains in middle and high school performance.

But progress is uneven among the districts and must go further. Improvements haven't yet reached enough
Abbott students and schools, especially middle and high school students. And, in a few districts, there are
still too many improper and questionable education and spending decisions by local boards and administrators, actions that besmirch the entire reform effort and must be stopped.

We can, and must, take Abbott to the next level. We have to finally harness Abbott as the "engine for reform" the court intended it to be. This cannot happen without change that starts with the state and moves right down to the districts and schools.

It's clear that after four governors and several education commissioners, the state has dropped the ball, failing the Abbott children, their schools and communities.

Gov. Jon Corzine said as much to the Supreme Court in May. The governor conceded that the state Education Department has not done the job. He also acknowledged that the agency must change the way it does business.

There are signs the governor gets it. Recently, he used Abbott authority to quickly remove the Camden superintendent embroiled in controversy over unapproved bonuses and test-score irregularities. "We have lots of powers under Abbott," he said.

But to exercise this power effectively and consistently, more fundamental change is needed. To help the governor make these changes, children's and education advocacy groups -- including the Statewide Parent Advocacy Network, Black Ministers Council and Paterson Education Fund -- have put together an "Abbott Accountability Agenda" (available at www.edlawcenter.org). The agenda includes:

Adopting a state management plan and budget for the $15 million in Abbott funds transferred annually to the Education Department to supervise the districts.

Evaluating the Abbott reforms and setting benchmarks to assess district progress.

Engaging parents, families and communities as partners in Abbott school reform.

Auditing districts' budgets and programs and prohibiting nepotism and patronage.

The court has already ordered much of this agenda. Others are just sound business and education practice.

It's time to make the Abbott districts models for reform, free from undue political influence and fully accountable to the public for spending wisely and making sound education decisions. Let's not let the children wait any longer.

David G. Sciarra is executive director of the Education Law Center and counsel in Abbott vs. Burke.

© 2006 The Star Ledger
© 2006 NJ.com All Rights Reserved.