Tears being shed over yesterday's state Supreme Court ruling that ends an education funding formula that favored New Jersey's 31 poorest school districts are premature. If implemented properly, the landmark decision will ensure that extra dollars follow poor students, no matter which school they attend.
That's a fairer way to distribute scarce education dollars, especially in a recession. Plus, the court's 5-0 decision put the state on notice that the new funding system will be reviewed in three years. If it finds poor schools being shortchanged, new remedies will be ordered. That's fair, too.
It means the last word hasn't been said in the Abbott v. Burke case, which began in 1981 with allegations that funding to New Jersey's poorest schools - mostly in urban areas, such as Camden - had failed to meet the state's constitutional obligation to provide a "thorough and efficient" education to all children.
The first Abbott ruling, in 1985, said urban children should receive the same education as those in wealthy suburbs. In 1990, the Supreme Court ordered the state to make up the difference between what the poorest schools spent per student and what the richest districts spent by topping off their state funds with heavy infusions of local money.
The court that year also ordered the state to begin supplemental education programs in the poorest schools to make up for the inferior education they had provided in the past. In 1997, the court ordered preschool and other programs for the so-called Abbott schools; in 1998, it ordered a state construction program to replace or repair old schools.
Meanwhile, parents and educators in less-affluent, inner-ring suburban and rural school districts complained that while they had poor students, too, they weren't getting any extra state funds. Critics also pointed to rampant misspending in many of the Abbott districts, as well as within the school construction program.
Faced with looming fiscal problems throughout state government, Gov. Corzine in 2007 came up with a more equitable education funding plan. The Education Law Center, which filed the original Abbott v. Burke complaint, objected, which put the case back on the Supreme Court's docket and led to yesterday's decision.
While the Law Center didn't prevail, the warnings it has sounded about the possible loss of effective supplemental education programs under Corzine's funding formula shouldn't be ignored. In fact, when the court conducts its review, it must take a close look at the condition of preschool and tutoring programs that were paid for by the state under Abbott.