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NJ Governor Announces New Collaborative Approach to Implementing Court-Ordered Urban School Reforms

In a major development in New Jersey's longstanding Abbott v. Burke education reform litigation, the new governor, James McGreevey, recently announced a plan to end the lawsuit and institute a collaborative process between the state, educators, and advocates to finally comply with the state Supreme Court's decisions in Abbott.

The court, in seven separate rulings since 1981, has ordered the State of New Jersey to provide students in the state's 30 mostly urban, high-need school districts with educational opportunities equal to their peers in the wealthier suburbs. The Governor's decision to fully comply with the court's rulings breaks the adversarial stance the State has assumed since the initiation of New Jersey's original education finance case, Robinson v. Cahill, in the early 1970's.

On February 19, 2002, Governor McGreevey signed an executive order creating the Abbott Implementation and Compliance Coordinating Council, a cooperative board that will be held accountable for implementing the reforms called for by the court. In addition to six top state officials, the Council will include David Sciarra, the executive director of the Education Law Center, the organization that has led the Abbott lawsuit against the State of New Jersey on behalf of the state's urban students for the past twenty years.

"New Jersey has a moral and legal obligation to ensure that every child can achieve the fullness of his or her promise," McGreevey said. The Governor added that the council "creates a mechanism to provide for accountability, collaboration and cooperation among all the stakeholders" and "will be a critical engine that provides New Jersey's children with an educational system that is accountable and prepares them for productive citizenry."

Under Abbott, New Jersey's urban students have the right to an education based on the State's Core Curriculum Content Standards, operational school funding at the level of successful suburban school districts, pre-school and other supplemental programs to address disadvantages, and educationally adequate school facilities.

Mr. Sciarra, the Education Law Center executive director and appointee to the Council, called Governor McGreevey's decision to cooperate with the plaintiffs an act of "leadership and commitment to the children of New Jersey's urban school districts that has been absent since we began this fight two decades ago."

Both the plaintiffs and the State defendants in Abbott applauded this development as "historic," but implementation of the extensive court-ordered reforms will take considerable time and effort. The implementation process and eventual impact on student achievement in New Jersey bear watching.

Prepared February 19, 2002