The Court in the Abbott II ruling of 1990 explicitly limited the Abbott programs and reforms to a class of school districts identified as "poorer urban districts" or "special needs districts." In 1997, these districts became known as "Abbott districts." The Court identified the specific factors used to designate districts as "Abbott districts." These districts:
- must be those with the lowest socio-economic status, thus assigned to the lowest categories on the New Jersey Department of Education's District Factor Groups (DFG) scale;
- "evidence of substantive failure of thorough and efficient education;" including "failure to achieve what the DOE considers passing levels of performance on the High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA);"
- have a large percentage of disadvantaged students who need "an education beyond the norm;"
- existence of an "excessive tax [for] municipal services" in the locality where the district is located.
In arguing this case, the Education Law Center had to establish that the lack of funding was the root of the lack of a thorough and efficient education. They very clearly established that the opportunities were the key issue, not the results. The state of New Jersey took a position that included identifying that mismanagement and corruption were the root of the problem. Their argument revolved around the idea that there is not a demonstrable link between money and good educational results.
In my very early teaching days I worked briefly in Camden, now one of the Abbott districts. It was very clear to me that a lack of money was an issue. I worked in a dilapidated building next to a corner where they burned old tires. I had a tiny little office with a rolling chalk board - but no chalk. I had absolutely no supplies or books or materials to meet the needs of my students. But there was an even bigger problem. I had only four students. In an elementary school of hundreds of kids, there were supposedly only four who needed the resource room services that I was hired to provide. After doing some amateur sleuth work I discovered that the district had hidden the files of students who had been evaluated for special education services. If the parents didn't show up and make noise following an evaluation, the district would simply bury the information. Eventually I tracked down dozens of missing files in a huge file room located in the basement of City Hall. I pulled the files and began meeting with parents. This process was very interesting because I had no trouble locating the parents or getting them to attend meetings to establish services. However, I would soon learn what the real problem was. The assistant superintendent who hired me showed up at one of my meetings told me that I had no right to call these parents and if I did so again he would see to it that I would be fired. So...yes, the district lacked critical funds for education. But mismanagement and corruption also played a key role in the poor results.
During the time I was teaching in Camden I was completely oblivious to the court proceedings that were occurring around the Abbott case. At that point in my life I was merely trying to do a nearly impossible job so I could feed my two very small children. I did not have the courage to fight the system and instead found another job in a nearby suburban district which had the money and will to provide appropriate educational services to low performing kids.
Even though I left quickly, Camden has always been in the back of my mind. During my career I have hit political walls again and again and again. As I grew older and wiser I developed the fortitude and skills necessary to fight back. In 2011 my career returned me to New Jersey and another Abbott district where there is no shortage of money, yet a stunning lack of results. With multiple favorable decisions behind them (thanks again to the Education Law Center), the schools of Abbott districts have more money than anyone could have ever imagined in the 1980s. They spend somewhere between 21 and 30 thousand dollars per student per year. They have the opportunities the Education Law Center sought when it first began arguing the Abbott case. Yet sadly, they still lack the results that our children deserve. It is my belief that we need similar landmark decisions in the area of school governance that could lead us to the elimination of the corruption, which causes the gross mismanagement of our schools.