Copyright 1994 Bergen Record Corp.
FORMER NUN FIGHTING FOR N.J. SCHOOLS -- AND HER LIFEBy CHRISTOPHER KILBOURNE
It was a classic mismatch: a former nun, leading a shoestring crusade to win equal education funding for underprivileged children, going up against the arsenal and inertia of New Jersey state government.
The state never had a chance.
But even as colleagues celebrated the New Jersey Supreme Court’s landmark June 5, 1990, decision in Abbott vs. Burke, Marilyn Morheuser was steeling herself for the fight that she knew lay ahead.
“The biggest responsibility for public-interest lawyers, after they win a paper victory, is to ensure that it is infused with the relief that has been promised,” she said, just a day after the ruling. Translation: It’s one thing to win a bet, it’s something else to collect.
True to her word, Morheuser is scheduled to return to the Supreme Court in two weeks to argue that the Legislature again has failed to bring about the required funding parity between the state’s poorest school districts and its wealthiest ones. The 69-year-old advocate wants the high court to appoint a special master to make sure that this time, the mandates of Abbott vs. Burke are carried out. She also is asking the court to keep jurisdiction over the case to avoid another time-consuming round of lower-court proceedings if the state fails to comply.
Morheuser wants the court to give the Legislature until Dec. 1 to close the spending gap -- or else.
If that deadline is set and lawmakers fail to meet it, she wants the court to cut off all public school funding -- in effect to shut down public education in New Jersey -- until the Legislature acts to equalize spending.
A decision from the high court may take several months.
Morheuser’s epic struggle with the Legislature is being played out against the personal drama of her lengthy battle with cancer. Her condition has grown increasingly serious in recent months. Indeed, Morheuser has been receiving chemotherapy while preparing for her oral arguments on the school funding case. The arguments had been scheduled for today, but were postponed by the Supreme Court until May 16 after she experienced “unanticipated reactions” to the treatments, according to a statement released by the Administrative Office of the Courts. “She is recovering at home.”
Morheuser declined to be interviewed for this article, explaining apologetically that she needed to devote her time and energy to the Supreme Court appeal.
“I have been very ill, and that has sapped a lot of my strength for working on this [case],” she said last week from her home in Newark. “These last few days are critical.”
Colleagues say that Morheuser, whose ever-present smile masks an unflagging resolve, has done more than any one person to change the face of school funding and the provision of educational services in New Jersey. And they say her dedication and accomplishments are all the more remarkable in light of her health problems.
“To be able to do what she does in the face of that is just unbelievable,” said Lawrence Lustberg, a Newark attorney who directs the John J. Gibbons Fellowship in Public Interest and Constitutional Law. “She’s got just extraordinary energy and commitment in the face of insuperable obstacles. She has been out raising money to fund this litigation while she keeps on top of one of the most complicated cases in the history of New Jersey.”
Morheuser, the executive director of the Education Law Center in Newark, has not waged the 13-year battle without reinforcements. She has been assisted by other attorneys at the law center; the Office of the Public Advocate; the New Jersey Education Association, which is the state’s largest teachers union, and public-interest groups that include Legal Services of New Jersey and the League of Women Voters.
But Morheuser’s role in the case goes far beyond that of lead attorney.
“She is the case; the case is her,” said Paul Tractenberg, a Rutgers Law School professor who founded the Education Law Center in 1973. “It has been a labor of love and a major part of her life. . . . If a major law firm were handling this, they’d have 10 people doing it.”
The inseparability of Morheuser and the crusade for school funding equity has colleagues wondering who could carry the banner for the state’s urban schoolchildren if she is unable to continue. “It’s hard to imagine it could go on as effectively without her there,” Lustberg said.
“I dread even the thought,” said Herbert Green, director of the Public Education Institute at Rutgers University. “She is unique in terms of her legal skills and commitment, and I just don’t know anybody else who combines all of that.”
Born in St. Louis in 1924, Morheuser has devoted most of her life to helping the disadvantaged, particularly children. After receiving a bachelor’s degree from Webster University and a master’s from Marquette University, she spent 16 years with the Sisters of Loretto, a teaching order of Roman Catholic nuns.
Her work in Milwaukee in the 1960s typifies her boundless energy:
She edited a weekly newspaper for the black community, helped direct a settlement house in a public housing project, ran a Head Start program, and compiled data for school desegregation cases in Milwaukee and Benton Harbor, Mich.
In 1970, at the age of 46, Morheuser enrolled in law school. She chose Rutgers, Tractenberg said, because of its reputation as a hotbed of public-interest law. She worked as an assistant deputy public defender and then as a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union before assuming the top post at the Education Law Center in 1979.
She immediately found herself facing a major decision. Six years earlier, the state Supreme Court had ruled in Robinson vs. Cahill that New Jersey’s school-funding system was unconstitutional. The court had found that the property tax-based system created wide disparities in per-pupil spending and discriminated against students in poor urban areas.
The court briefly cut off funding to the public schools in July 1976, forcing the Legislature to enact an income tax to help equalize school funding.
Morheuser was confronted with growing evidence that the Robinson suit had failed to correct the spending gaps between rich and poor districts, and that the disparities actually were getting worse. The fledgling law center was ill-equipped to launch a second lawsuit, but when Morheuser shopped the idea around to other public-interest groups, they all passed on it.
After meeting with her board of directors, Morheuser decided to lead the fight herself. “The reaction of the board was, if we didn’t bring this lawsuit, we had no right to exist,” she would recall later.
Abbott vs. Burke, the class-action suit filed in 1981, contended that the state’s school-funding setup perpetuated the spending gaps between districts and violated the state constitutional right of inner-city children to a “thorough and efficient” education.
For the next nine years, Morheuser shepherded the case through a tedious maze of hearings and appeals. The enormous costs of the litigation -- estimated at close to $4 million -- pushed the non-profit law center to the brink of bankruptcy, from which it was rescued on more than one occasion by grants from private foundations.
Through it all, colleagues say, Morheuser never lost sight of the underlying reasons for the lawsuit. “She has an ability to care about the children, even when she is dealing with cold statistics and legal concepts,” Lustberg said.
The Supreme Court’s ruling that the funding system was unconstitutional as it applied to the state’s 28 poorest school districts resulted in the 1990 Quality Education Act, which helped narrow the disparities in per-student spending. Gov. Jim Florio’s controversial measure, with its Robin Hood provisions, angered suburban school officials and lawmakers, however. In 1991, the Legislature amended QEA, diverting money from the urban school districts and applying it toward property-tax relief. Morheuser want back to court.
“Her position is that the Legislature made a conscious decision that contravened the Supreme Court’s intent in Abbott,” Lustberg said.
Superior Court Judge Paul Levy ruled last year that the QEA, as amended, failed to comply with the Supreme Court’s ruling in Abbott, including its requirement that funding parity be achieved within five years. But Levy did not order any corrective steps, saying that that is the job of the Supreme Court.
The state is appealing Levy’s findings; Morheuser is appealing his failure to order any remedial action. She also is contending that the QEA does not adequately weight school funding toward “special-needs” districts -- those in the bottom 10 percent in terms of tax base and school spending -- and that the act does not provide the kind of funding certainty required under Abbott.
Deputy Attorney General Benjamin Clarke argues that the state is acting in good faith, and that no further court-ordered measures are needed to close the spending gap. He says that spending in most of the state’s poor urban districts now exceeds what wealthy districts were spending when Abbott was decided in 1990.
While the “substantial parity” ordered by the high court has not yet been achieved, it is “in sight,” he contends in court papers.
Even Clarke sings the praises of his adversary. “She is remarkable, an absolutely dedicated advocate for her cause.” The only rub, he said, is that “her dedication at times carries her beyond more moderate possibilities.”
Green, of the Public Education Institute, says Morheuser’s work has kept the spotlight on the “desperate” situation of urban schoolchildren, and stands as a beacon to other public-interest advocates.
“She has done something that practically no one else in the state has done,” he said. “She decided where her loyalties were -- with the children and families in property-poor districts -- and she never once allowed herself to avert her eyes from the needs of those children and families.
“Others of us, every now and then, we avert our eyes -- we shift our gaze. . . . We need somebody like Marilyn to bring us back and remind us that the problems not only exist, but because of society’s neglect, they grow worse.”