The Institute on Education Law and Policy was established in 2000 by Professor Paul Tractenberg of Rutgers Law School - Newark. Professor Tractenberg's vision was an institute devoted to education law and policy issues: a center for lawyers, social scientists and education practitioners to come together to address the complex and controversial education issues that dominate the legal and public policy agendas of New Jersey and every other state, and that loom on the federal level.
New Jersey and Rutgers University provide an ideal, indeed distinctive, locus for such an institute. New Jersey is engaged in an unprecedented urban education reform effort. This is largely a function of the State's school funding and educational reform litigation, its cases known as Robinson v. Cahill and Abbott v. Burke. These two cases provide a series of unique constitutional mandates and have resulted in an ambitious effort to improve schools in the state’s poorest districts. Since 1973, the New Jersey Supreme Court has issued numerous opinions establishing and defining with specificity the rights of urban students to an educational opportunity designed to fully meet their needs and address their disadvantages. The Court has required the State to provide "parity funding" to the state’s “special needs school districts” to assure per-pupil regular education spending levels equivalent to those in the state's wealthiest districts, whole school reform programs to channel the funds into effective programs, supplemental programs directed at the special needs of urban students, and improvement of school facilities.
Rutgers Law School has played a seminal role throughout the litigation. A team of faculty and law students led by Professor Tractenberg, representing the Newark chapter of the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, filed a massive "friend of the court" brief at an early stage of Robinson. In 1973 Professor Tractenberg founded the Education Law Center, a public interest law project dedicated to serving students in New Jersey’s urban school districts, served as its director until 1976, and has remained actively involved in the organization ever since, while also serving on the Rutgers Law faculty. He served as co-counsel for plaintiffs in Abbott from the time of its filing in 1981 until 1998. In all, he appeared before the New Jersey Supreme Court on 14 occasions in Robinson and Abbott.
The Institute on Education Law and Policy is an outgrowth of Professor Tractenberg’s experience in Robinson and Abbott, but also a major departure. It is an outgrowth of that experience, in that the Institute was inspired by the interconnections between the law and education policy, and between the law and social science, that were so integral to those cases. Perhaps more than any other case in our nation’s history, Abbott exemplifies the role of law in establishing education policy. At the same time, with its extensive reliance on expert testimony, it exemplifies the role of social science in establishing the law. It was this constructive interplay between the law and social science that led to creation of the Institute.
But the Institute is a departure from the Abbott experience, in that it is not an advocacy organization. While the Institute’s mission is to promote education reform, particularly in New Jersey’s urban school districts, its function is interdisciplinary research, analysis and discussion, not advocacy. The Institute does not set out, in its work, to serve the interests of any particular constituency or to reach any particular conclusion. To the contrary, it takes into account the needs and interests of all relevant constituencies. As a result, in its short history the Institute has emerged as New Jersey’s premier center for interdisciplinary research and innovative thinking on education policy.
The Institute has four substantive areas of special interest and expertise:
School Finance – Maintenance and Support of a Thorough and Efficient
System of Education; Education Funding Considerations for State Fiscal and Economic Policy
Education Accountability – State Oversight and Intervention in Local School District Operations
School Choice – The Role of Parental Choice and School Choice Programs
Successful Schools – Examination and Replication of Successful School Programs
In 2002, the Institute issued Developing a Plan for Reestablishing Local Control in the State-operated School Districts, a four-volume report to the New Jersey Commissioner of Education, followed by ongoing work with the Commissioner and the State Legislature to implement the recommendations in the report through legislative change.
In 2004, it issued Setting the Stage for Informed, Objective Deliberation on School Choice, a study of legal and policy issues pertaining to school choice and a communications effort aimed at informing public discussion of school choice issues in New Jersey.
The Institute also issued a report entitled Using National Best Practices to Improve New Jersey’s Management of Education Data (2002) and completed a 50-state survey of the law of early childhood education for a project entitled “Starting at 3” (2004).
In 2005, the Institute embarked on three new projects:
Don't Forget the Schools focuses on the complex relationship between state tax policy and the constitutional mandate for a thorough and efficient system of education. The Institute convened two meetings of experts in the fields of education policy, law, school finance and state tax policy, and is producing a series of reports of the issue: Fiscal, Budget and Policy Considerations for Tax Reform, Legal Considerations for Tax Reform, and Education Funding Considerations for Tax Reform.
Pockets of Educational Excellence is a qualitative examination of high-performing schools in New Jersey’s Abbott districts.
The Rutgers-Foundation for Education Administration Education Law and Policy Institute, in collaboration with the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association, is a nine-month intensive course on education law and policy for principals, aspiring principals and other school leaders.
For 2006, the Institute is renewing its focus on education accountability with two new projects:
Implementing QSAC takes an in-depth look at the Quality Single Accountability Continuum, established by legislation adopted in 2005. The Institute is playing a key role with the Department of Education in developing implementing regulations for QSAC’s new system of monitoring and intervention in local school districts, and it is conducting an evaluation of the Department’s pilot implementation of the new system.
Toward a Rational State Policy on Education Finance and Accountability is a research and policy analysis project in which the Institute is considering a wide range of legal, fiscal and education policy issues in school finance focusing on the relationship between funding and accountability, with the goal of contributing to a new, and much needed, school finance system.
And the Institute is continuing its work on school choice with a research project funding by the New Jersey Department of Education and the State Legislature Joint Committee on the Public Schools, A Closer Look at Public School Choice in New Jersey. This project will result in reports evaluating the state’s Interdistrict Public School Choice Program and its charter school program.