From Robinson v. Cahill to Abbott v. Burke: New Jersey attempts school finance reform

Eric Michael Gernant, Fordham University


The purpose of this study was to provide a historical analysis of New Jersey school finance reform from 1970 to 1990. It focused on the problem of achieving effective school finance reform through the courts by examining the Robinson and Abbott decisions. With more finance equity cases likely, this effort hoped to identify appropriate court remedies which may lead to meaningful school funding reform. This historical policy study used interviewing and historical research methodologies. It employed documentary analysis of court decisions and state public records. Members of the New Jersey Legislature were interviewed along with officials from the governor's office and participants in the Robinson and Abbott litigation. In order to suggest what types of court alternatives are most likely to succeed in providing school finance equity in New Jersey, this study examined the issues raised in Robinson; detailed the state's response to the Robinson mandate; investigated the Abbott plaintiffs' dissatisfaction with the Public School Education Act of 1975; analyzed the administrative and judicial rulings in Abbott; and surveyed the history of school finance reform and the most recent state court rulings. This study maintains that Abbott has not advanced the cause of greater school equity. The narrowness of the court's decision was divisive, pitting "poor" urban against "wealthy" suburban districts. Also, the timetable for legislative compliance to its mandate and the governor's push for quick enactment of the Quality Education Act of 1990, resulted in a new funding law which is likely to be challenged in the court. The prospect of ongoing controversy emerged in light of the court's position with regard to the counter-equalizing impact of teacher pensions. This study found both mixed legislative support for a court-appointed master and the need for clear court standards to which the legislature can respond. To enact an education funding reform bill which has the broadest possible support requires a cooperative relationship between the courts and the other two branches of government. Otherwise, courts will continue to become embroiled in a political thicket where they will have little impact on the quality of public school education.

Subject Area

School finance|Education history|Education

Recommended Citation

Gernant, Eric Michael, "From Robinson v. Cahill to Abbott v. Burke: New Jersey attempts school finance reform" (1991). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI9136322.