This week, Governor Christie unveiled a controversial education proposal that will abolish one of the core values that uniquely defines New Jersey — our shared responsibility to educate all our children. While we have not completely perfected the model, the doors of our public schools open each Fall under the unique ideal that funding for every classroom is based on the specific needs of each student.
The priority we put on educating our children comes from the historic New Jersey Supreme Court ruling from many years ago, which found that education policies in poor communities were not only inadequate, but also unconstitutional. In response, the Court mandated that State funding in thirty-one select school districts be equal to the wealthiest districts of the state. These qualifying areas are known as Abbott School Districts.
This Constitutional compact between parent and policymaker made New Jersey a national leader for educational justice. Our values uphold the belief that regardless of geographic location, skin color or income bracket, every child, has a fundamental right to a high-quality education.
In recent years, there have been a series of political, legal and legislative actions that have unsuccessfully challenged Abbott School Districts. Misguided questions have been proposed, suggesting that the State cannot afford the requirements of Abbott. Unfair policy suggestions have been introduced to replace the guarantees we aspire to provide our children. And some have even dismissed the constitutional laws of our State entirely. What seems to be lost in those discussion is opportunities for all children — today and for generations to come.
Abandoning our thirty-one Abbott School Districts would create an economic, social and political upheaval far stronger than the winds of Hurricane Sandy. Denying basic school funding, that our Courts have already ruled in favor of, would devastate cities throughout the State.
The laws of unintended of consequences with this proposal would create chaos throughout New Jersey, where some municipalities would be unable to govern. If the constitutional rights of cities are ignored, and education funding is denied by the State, local governments may have to shutdown. To offset education costs, street will go unpaved. Parks will no longer be maintained. Police forces will be dramatically cut. Needed services would cease, affecting hundreds of thousands of people and their entire communities.
Abandoning Abbott would also create consequences for families across the State. A strong education system provides parents with some confidence that schools are helping to create a foundation for a better life for their children. Dismantling Abbott would take all of that away. Teachers would be laid off. Fewer public school options would be provided to parents. Most of all, the hope, which is at the core of the Abbott ruling, will be lost by entire communities.
While bold, innovative thinking is certainly needed in our education debate, this new proposal effectively abandons children, especially in cities such as Newark, Camden, Jersey City, and Paterson.
Abandoning Abbott sends a clear message – That every community is on its own, those communities that can take care of themselves will do so and those that cannot, will just have to deal with it. I wish we could say that a child in Newark or Camden has the same resources and educational opportunities as a child in Livingston or Ridgewood. But they don’t and to pretend that they do is not living in reality.
It has been said that the greatness of a nation can be measured by how many of its children live in poverty. Quality education is universally recognized as the pathway out of poverty. For years, our values have upheld the right to a high-quality education for all, not a selected few. Quality education for all children is the Civil Rights issue of our generation. We must continue to find better solutions to both the achievement and income gaps that exist in our State and country. But, without a doubt, dividing our State into ‘Haves’ and ‘Have-Nots” is not the answer.
Muhammed Akil serves as Executive Director of the Parent Coalition For Excellent Education (PC2E), which is a New Jersey-based organization focused on providing every parent the strongest possible voice in the education debate.