Education Equity Expert: ‘We’ve Gotta Give Up the Notion of Local Control’ – Education Week
When David Sciarra took over as executive director of the Education Law Center in 1996, he was brand new to the field of education law. Up to that point, his career had involved civil rights cases around homelessness and affordable housing.
In the nearly three decades since, Sciarra, 70, has led the New Jersey-based group through numerous local and state campaigns and court proceedings, all centered around agitating for states to ensure that low-income and other marginalized students have the same opportunities as their higher-income peers to receive a high-quality education.
He arrived at the organization midway through a protracted legal fight over school funding in New Jersey, known colloquially as the Abbott case, that resulted in a series of landmark court decisions about educational equity. At the urging of the courts, the state ultimately enacted programs for universal preschool, full state funding of school facilities improvements, and a per-pupil funding formula that provides a base amount for all students and additional dollars to address the greater needs of students from low-income families.
After leading similar legal efforts in numerous other states, Sciarra announced earlier this month that he will retire effective Jan. 31. He sat down last Friday with Education Week on Zoom to discuss his career, lessons from his successes and the challenges he’s faced, and advice for future generations of advocates for public schools.
Sciarra argues that much of the current conventional wisdom around equitable school funding stems from the precedents set by the Abbott reforms in New Jersey. And he argues for a relentless focus on the role of states in ensuring educational equity—a relevant insight as school funding lawsuits across the country continue to play out in dramatic and contentious fashion in states like Arizona, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wyoming.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
A lot has changed in the K-12 world since you joined the Education Law Center in 1996. What was happening when you started?
I was thrown into the fire almost immediately to deal with what were and are some of the most contentious issues in education policy. What does good school funding look like for districts that are highly segregated by poverty and race? What’s an adequate level of funding and resources when states consign, through their district boundaries, students to school districts that have to serve very high concentrations of student need? What about preschool—how do we get kids into programs early?
In 1996, the condition of New Jersey’s segregated urban districts was similar to what we still see in many high-poverty, racially isolated school districts in states across the country: huge disparities in funding and resources between poor districts and more affluent districts.
I was immediately involved in some tremendous and challenging proceedings. We had special masters, we went back to the court a bunch of times. We had to get new administrations to actually implement these remedies in a serious way.
The court directed the state to come up with legislation to finance school facilities construction, and following that, in 2002 the …….