Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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New Jersey Abbott Districts

The Abbott District

Three decades ago, before a lot of New Jersey voters were even born, the so-called Mt. Laurel decision ordered the state to distribute money to woefully underperforming school districts to give the kids a fair chance in life. But now, thirty years later, the money routinely goes to ten or twelve school districts, and the other five hundred are suffering from high taxes. The voters in the five hundred districts are angry and want some of their tax money to stay at home. But by any fair appraisal, the schools in the Abbott Districts are still deplorable, and a great many children are growing up without an educational chance in modern life. Both sides have a legitimate point, and neither will budge.

But now there arises an entirely different way of looking at the mess. Maybe money isn't the point, but education is the point. The purpose of the Abbott District money was not to give money fairly or unfairly. The purpose of the money was to educate children, so at least they wouldn't grow up to a life of poverty and crime. In a sense, it doesn't much matter how unfairly the money is distributed, just so the kids get an education. Do they?

Frankly, it doesn't look as though they do. After thirty years, it is not hard-hearted to say the burden of proof is on those who say the money did some good. The very least that everyone ought to agree on is to perform a library search for other ideas, like charter schools, and report to a Legislative committee, followed by taking testimony from places with experience with other ideas. Because the real issue is not, how long we go on spending this money. It is, or ought to be, how long must the kids wait before something better is given a chance?

These are not easy issues. Our forebears didn't do such a wonderful job with assimilating the American Indians, but surely we can do better than that. With this horrible example before us, we cannot really expect the problem to solve itself. Nor is it a purely local problem; plenty of big cities have the same issue in a slightly different form. How are charter schools doing, for example? I have every confidence that if the local Camden County community, or even the whole State of New Jersey, could show some important progress -- money would come pouring in to help a winning project. But to keep on with the same old ideas is going to get you the same old results.

Originally published: Tuesday, September 24, 2013; most-recently modified: Friday, May 24, 2019