Ray Abbott was the son of a minister and a schoolteacher. Vivian Figueroa grew up on welfare. In 1981, when a public-interest law firm went to court to challenge New Jersey’s school funding system on their behalf, they were Camden kids living less than a mile apart, in a state where poor city school districts like theirs spent 25 percent less per student than the wealthy suburbs did.
Forty-five states have faced legal challenges to their school funding systems, but New Jersey’s decades-long conflict is one of the oldest and longest-lasting. Drawing on thousands of pages of court and archival records and on interviews with nearly two hundred people, Other People’s Children: The Battle for Justice and Equality in New Jersey’s Schools is the first book to tell the story of this epic struggle over a rich society’s responsibility for the education of the poor.
New Jersey’s story strikes chords that resonate far beyond the borders of one wealthy, crowded, diverse state. In a democracy that prides itself on giving every child an equal shot at success, school funding battles reflect deeper conflicts over society’s values and direction. We define the boundaries of community in part by deciding whose children count as “our children,” and therefore deserve the best we can give them.
Other People’s Children interweaves a public story — an account of legal and political wrangling over laws and money — with the private stories of the twenty-one inner-city children who were named plaintiffs in New Jersey’s two school funding lawsuits, Abbott v. Burke and its 1970s predecessor, Robinson v. Cahill. Beginning in 1990, Abbott has spawned such far-reaching court decisions in favor of urban schoolchildren that the New York Times has said it “may be the most significant education case since the Supreme Court’s desegregation ruling.”
Although the Robinson and Abbott cases have shaped New Jersey’s fiscal and political landscape for two generations, the debate they spawned has often been conducted in an atmosphere too technical and rarefied for ordinary citizens to breathe. By contrast, Other People’s Children is a lucid and accessible account that crystallizes the arguments and clarifies the issues for general readers – the voters, taxpayers, and neighbors who must ultimately decide how our democracy will balance the claims of rich and poor, individual and community.
Read a short(ish) history of school finance litigation in New Jersey here.
See a timeline of New Jersey's school funding battles here.
Find a summary of major legal decisions here.
View a list of school districts covered by the Abbott rulings here.