The Constitutional Right to Equal Public School Facilities in New Jersey08.14.2002
Since funding for public school facilities in New Jersey has been predominantly provided for through local real estate taxes, it is easy to understand why school facilities in wealthier suburban townships can be "state of the art" while the facilities in poorer urban cities are often outdated and in disrepair.
In July 1975, the Legislature passed the "Public School Education Act" to set a funding formula for public schools, but it was not until 1976 that the state income tax was passed to actually provide the funding. Beginning over two decades ago, a nonprofit advocacy group, the Education Law Center, took steps to end the inequity in public school facilities. The Education Law Center was founded in 1973 by Professor Paul Tractenberg. In 1981 the Education Law Center instituted suit (i.e., Abbott vs. Burke) on behalf of poor, urban school children challenging the validity of the 1975 "Public School Education Act." The school districts, on whose behalf the Education Law Center filed suit, are now known collectively as the "Abbott" school districts; "Abbott" being the last name of the first child alphabetically listed as a plaintiff in the lawsuit. The current Abbott districts are Asbury Park, Bridgeton, Burlington City, Camden, East Orange, Elizabeth, Garfield, Gloucester City, Harrison, Hoboken, Irvington, Jersey City, Keansburg, Long Branch, Manville, Neptune Township, New Brunswick, Newark, Orange, Passaic, Paterson, Pemberton, Perth Amboy, Phillipsburg, Plainfield, Pleasantville, Trenton, Union City, Vineland and West New York.
There have been multiple decisions by the New Jersey Supreme Court in these "Abbott" cases. In Abbott I the Education Law Center alleged that there was inadequate public school funding in the poorer urban districts and challenged the constitutionality of the Public Education Act of 1975. In 1985 the New Jersey Supreme Court remanded the dispute to an Administrative Law Judge, but in so doing expressly ruled that in order to satisfy the New Jersey Constitution, the State must assure urban children an education enabling them to compete with their suburban peers.
In the second Abbott decision issued in June 1990, the Supreme Court held that the State's inadequate and unequal funding to the Abbott districts denied students in those districts "a thorough and efficient" education. Thus, the Supreme Court ruled that the existing system was unconstitutional. The Court expressly noted that in order to provide an "efficient" educational system in compliance with the New Jersey Constitution, the State must assure its students adequate physical facilities. The Court ordered the State to "equalize" suburban and urban districts.
The "Quality Education Act," signed by Governor Jim Florio, and the "Comprehensive Education Improvement & Financing Act" (CEIFA) signed by Governor Whitman were passed, but the Supreme Court of New Jersey held in Abbott III and Abbott IV that both of these statutes were unconstitutional and ordered the State to immediately increase funding for urban schools to be in parity with suburban schools. In Abbott IV the New Jersey Supreme Court expressly noted that CEIFA completely failed to address one of the most significant problems facing the Abbott school districts; namely, "dilapidated, unsafe and overcrowded facilities."
In Abbott V, the Supreme Court ordered each school district to complete an enrollment projection and a Five-Year Facilities Management Program by January 1999 to enable the State and each district to make the site-sensitive decision as to whether it would be more feasible to renovate or build new school facilities. The Court emphasized that the State would have to provide all of the monies necessary to fund the complete cost of the identified remediation or needed construction.
In July 2000, the "Educational Facility Construction & Financing Act" (EFCFA) was enacted and it provides for a comprehensive scheme for the review and development of school facility projects, calculating the cost for such projects, and other administrative elements of school construction not previously addressed. In Abbott VIII, the Court held that EFCFA was in compliance with the prior Abbott rulings. This law expressly reiterates that the New Jersey State Constitution requires the Legislature to "provide for the maintenance and support" of a "thorough and efficient" system of free public schools. The Act further provides that this responsibility includes "ensuring that students are educated in physical facilities that are safe, healthy and conducive to learning." The statute goes on to declare that "inadequacies in quality, utility, and safety of educational facilities have arisen among local school districts of this State." The statute further mandates that, "In order to ensure that the Legislature's constitutional responsibility for adequate educational facilities is met, there is need to establish an efficiency standard for educational facilities..." In probably its most significant provision, EFCFA provides as follows:
Educational infrastructure inadequacies are greatest in the Abbott districts where maintenance has been deferred and new construction has not been initiated due to concerns about costs. To remedy the facilities' inadequacies of the Abbott districts, the State must promptly engage in the facilities' needs assessment and fund the entire cost of repairing, renovating and constructing the new school facilities determined by the Commissioner of Education to be required to meet the school facilities efficiency standards in the Abbott districts. In other districts, the State must also identify need in view of anticipated growth in school population, and must contribute to the cost of the renovation and construction of new facilities to ensure the provision of a thorough and efficient education in those districts.
In Abbott VII, the Supreme Court stated that the Legislature and/or Commissioner can remove districts from the Abbott classification. In the year 2000, 17 rural districts sought "Abbott district" classification with the Commissioner of Education, and this application remains outstanding.
As must be obvious by now, there is going to be--one way or the other--a substantial amount of school construction in New Jersey throughout this decade and undoubtedly into the next decade, and this massive undertaking is about to unfold essentially as a result of the lawsuits initiated by the Education Law Center over the last two decades.