Other People's Children
The Battle for Justice and Equality in New Jersey's Schools
Publication Year: 2007
In 1981, when Raymond Abbott was a twelve-year-old sixth-grader in Camden, New Jersey, poor city school districts like his spent 25 percent less per student than the state’s wealthy suburbs did. That year, Abbott became the lead plaintiff in a landmark class-action lawsuit demanding that the state provide equal funding for rich and poor schools. Over the next twenty-five years, as the non-profit law firm representing the plaintiffs won ruling after ruling from the New Jersey Supreme Court, Abbott dropped out of school, fought a cocaine addiction, and spent time in prison before turning his life around.
Raymond Abbott’s is just one of the many human stories that have too often been forgotten in the policy battles New Jersey has waged for two generations over equal funding for rich and poor schools. Other People’s Children, the first book to tell the story of this decades-long school funding battle, interweaves the public story—an account of legal and political wrangling over laws and money—with the private stories of the inner-city children who were named plaintiffs in the state’s two school funding lawsuits, Robinson v. Cahill and Abbott v. Burke. Although these cases have shaped New Jersey’s fiscal and political landscape since the 1970s, most recently in legislative arguments over tax reform, the debate has often been too abstract and technical for most citizens to understand. Written in an accessible style and based on dozens of interviews with lawyers, politicians, and the plaintiffs themselves, Other People’s Children crystallizes the arguments and clarifies the issues for general readers.
Beyond its implications for New Jersey, this book is an important contribution to the conversations taking place in all states about the nation’s responsibility for its poor, and the role of public schools in providing equal opportunities and promising upward mobility for hard-working citizens, regardless of race or class.
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Title Page, Copyright
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Preface and Acknowledgments
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This is a work of nonfiction that draws on tens of thousands of pages of archival materials, legal documents, and published sources, and on interviews with nearly 200 individuals. I base descriptions of conversations on the account of at least one of the participants; I base descriptions of an individual’s thoughts or feelings either on my interview with the person concerned or, occasionally, on accounts given to me by friends or colleagues....
The Plaintiffs and Their Families
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Introduction: The Inheritance
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In 1975, a dentist living in an affluent New Jersey suburb told a newspaper why he opposed using an income tax to fund inner-city public schools. In the process, he unwittingly summed up the clash between self-interest and the claims of community that was to undergird school-finance battles in New Jersey and the nation for decades to come. “You can’t expect people who worked very hard to make a little money to pay for other people’s...
Part 1: The Beginning: Robinson v. Cahill, 1970–1976
Chapter 1: Jersey City’s Tax War
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For Christmas 1967, Betty Robinson’s seven children got just one present among them. Betty had announced that gifts would go only to those kids who brought home good report cards, and that year, only her fifth child, nine-year-old Kenneth, qualified. He got a green bicycle, and the others, from fourteen-year-old Patricia down to baby Lydia, got nothing. Still, Kenneth let his brothers and sisters take turns riding his new bike along....
Chapter 2: Celebrating the Bicentennial
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Somewhere, Kenneth Robinson had acquired a nickname: everyone called him Babe, perhaps because he was the youngest of the Robinson brothers, perhaps because girls were drawn to him. Dark skinned and solidly built, Babe cared about his looks: he kept his teeth white and his hair perfectly waved, ironed his own clothes, shined his shoes, and made sure his sneakers had clean laces. He was funny and outgoing, popular with the...
Part 2: The Crusade: Abbott v. Burke, 1979–1998
Chapter 3: The True Believer
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By the 1980s, a casual observer might have mistaken Marilyn Morheuser for a picture-perfect grandmother. Short and stout, with graying hair, thick glasses, and sensible shoes, she loved her books and her cats, nurtured a wide windowsill’s worth of luxuriant plants, and spun out her Christmas shopping into an elaborate, months-long project. True, she would have made an irreverent kind of grandma—the kind who chainsmoked,...
Chapter 4: Son of Robinson
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Marilyn Morheuser almost did not get the job that would become the center of her life. In 1979, 350 people applied to run the Education Law Center (ELC), the nonprofit law firm that would soon revive school-funding litigation in New Jersey, and she was not one of them....
Chapter 5: The Families
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In 1970, when Harold Ruvoldt Jr. challenged New Jersey’s school-funding law, he envisioned the ideal plaintiffs and found a close enough approximation in Betty and Kenneth Robinson. For her successor suit, Marilyn Morheuser seems to have been less choosy: although she told one parent that she was seeking families from a cross-section of educational backgrounds and economic circumstances, she does not seem to have matched...
Chapter 6: “The System Is Broken”
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The winter of 1983–84 was difficult for Marilyn Morheuser. True, by the time she paid her Christmas visit to her sister’s family in St. Louis, she had recovered from her mastectomy eleven months earlier—over the holidays, she seemed more angry than frightened when, in her matter-of-fact way, she showed her breast prosthesis to her oldest niece. But back home in Newark, a freak accident laid her up again: a coffeepot full of boiling...
Chapter 7: The Twenty-One/Forty-One Rule
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Through eight long years, Abbott v. Burke had been dismissed, appealed, rerouted, delayed, heard, decided, and appealed again; the Education Law Center had kept its slippery grip on financial viability; and Marilyn Morheuser had weathered cancer, accident, and crushing disappointment. By the fall of 1989, as Morheuser prepared for arguments before the state supreme court, no one, not even the state’s lawyers, expected her...
Chapter 8: The Children of Abbott
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For journalists awaiting the Abbott II ruling that spring of 1990, Ray Abbott’s story was a gift from the news gods. The alphabetical accident that had put Ray’s name at the head of Marilyn Morheuser’s plaintiff list provided the peg on which to hang a human drama more compelling than school-funding statistics and constitutional analyses could ever be. Reduced to the shorthand of daily journalism, what the reporters found...
Chapter 9: A Constitutional Right to Astroturf
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Marilyn Morheuser’s last terrible year had wreaked havoc on the Education Law Center. Its staff was decimated, its finances were a shambles, and its case was approaching another critical juncture: the courtordered deadline for a new school-funding law was less than a year away. Despite her faults, Morheuser had been an extraordinary leader for ELC— dedicated, courageous, and profoundly committed to children. Even under...
Part 3: The Never-Ending Story: Implementing Abbott, 1998–2006
Chapter 10: “We Do Not Run School Systems”
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For seventeen years, the Abbott case had turned on large questions: the role of money in schooling, the power of education to overcome poverty, the fairest way to apportion billions in taxpayer dollars. The 1998 Abbott V ruling changed the terms of the debate, opening a new chapter in New Jersey’s long struggle over equal educational opportunity. The state supreme court had ordered a comprehensive reform package only reluctantly,...
Chapter 11: The Children Grow Up
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By the early twenty-first century, New Jersey had spent two generations wrestling with the question of equal educational opportunity, but that titanic legal and political struggle had barely touched the lives of the twenty children who were named plaintiffs in Abbott v. Burke. By the time the state supreme court invalidated Governor Jim Florio’s QEA in the 1994...
Conclusion: Other People’s Children
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Did it work?
Sooner or later, every conversation about New Jersey’s school-funding battle arrives at that perfectly reasonable, deceptively simple question. Were they worth it, all those years of litigation and legislation and angry argument? Did Abbott v. Burke succeed?...
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About the Author
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Page Count: 392
Publication Year: 2007