A little more than two years ago, New Jersey enacted a law mandating a fairer distribution of education dollars that supposedly sent the term "Abbott districts" to the trash bin of history.
Their death was short-lived. The Abbotts are back. In its 3-2 ruling Tuesday, the state Supreme Court decided it was necessary to again separate the state's 31 poorest school districts (including Camden's) from the rest to ensure their adequate funding. The 31 Abbott districts were initially singled out for special treatment in the Abbott v. Burke case, which has included more than 20 separate rulings in the past three decades.
Throughout that time, New Jersey's other school districts rightly complained that it was unfair to give only the Abbotts more cash when they had poor students, too.
Under then-Gov. Jon Corzine's leadership, the Legislature finally heard them and came up with a school-funding formula that would allocate additional money to all schools with poor students.
That meant the Abbotts would no longer be distinctive, so their nom de plume could die.
But then came Gov. Christie, who, in trying to balance the state's books in the aftermath of the recession, decided not to fund public education according to the funding formula. He would give public schools a $250 million increase next year, not the $1.7 billion that fulfilling the formula required.
The Education Law Center filed suit on behalf of the Abbotts, repeating its original argument that the state constitution guarantees a "thorough and efficient system of free public schools." The court agreed, but only for the Abbotts, ordering the state to give them an additional $500 million.
That puts New Jersey back where it was before the Corzine funding plan became law. Once again, the Abbott districts will get the bulk of state education dollars while other districts with poor students must suffer without.
Too bad the court, which approved the Corzine formula in a 2009 ruling, didn't simply order Christie to fund all schools as it should. The majority opinion said the "state made a conscious and calculated decision to underfund" the formula. But the impact wasn't limited to the Abbotts, so why was the ruling limited?
Christie hinted in April that he might not abide by the court decision if he didn't like it. But Tuesday he said he wouldn't fight it. "The constitutional ball is now in the Legislature's court," he said.
With state revenues now predicted to be from $500 million to $900 million above previous projections, the Legislature may find it easier to fund the Abbotts, but what of the rest of the districts? Increasing their funding will require cuts elsewhere.
Christie's decision to withhold education dollars even after finding out there would be additional revenue has extended the Abbott category's life span. But perhaps he isn't fighting the ruling because he believes the days of giving more to the Abbotts will end one way or another, given that he will likely make two new Supreme Court appointments this year.