SFRA v. Abbott Highlights

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The full text of the Court’s decision is here for you stalwarts, but here’s a Cliff Notes version:

Judge Peter Doyne, quoting from Abbott II, explains what he means by “a thorough and efficient education.” Key point: it doesn’t mean funding our poorest kids at the rate of our richest kids, which is at the heart of the Abbott v. Burke epic:

a thorough and efficient education requires a certain level of educational opportunity, a minimum level, that will equip the student to become “a citizen and . . . a competitor in the labor market.” Robinson I, supra, 62 N.J. at 515, 303 A.2d 273. The State’s obligation to attain that minimum is absolute — any district that fails must be compelled to comply. If, however, that level is reached, the constitutional mandate is fully satisfied regardless of the fact that some districts may exceed it. In other words, the Constitution does not mandate equal expenditures per pupil. We implied that the level can — and should — be defined in terms of substantive educational content. But while disparity was explicitly permitted, there was a caveat — the excess spending could not somehow be allowed to mask a failure to achieve thoroughness and efficiency in other districts.

Judge Doyne Evaluates the Plaintiff’s argument that the D.O.E.’s method for assessing necessary education costs — Professional Judgement Panel, or PJP — is flawed and inaccurate. Key witness for the Plaintiffs was Dr. Margaret E. Goertz. From Doyne’s opinion:

Goertz has been involved with the Abbott litigation for in excess of twenty years. Goertz testified in the remand hearing conducted before then A.L.J. Steven L. Lefelt in 1987, and thereafter testified before the Honorable Kenneth S. Levy, J.S.C. and the Honorable Michael Patrick King, P.J.A.D. in conjunction with subsequent remand hearings. One is compelled to wonder whether she has developed a vested interest in the issues presented thereby precluding a dispassionate review.

And,

Recognizing there is no study on any correlation between funding and educational outcome, Goertz was not prepared to opine what amount of funding was necessary to ensure a thorough and efficient education while she was compelled to acknowledge New Jersey is one of the highest spending states in the country on educating its youth

Judge Doyne’s discussion of the SFRA’s calculations for special education costs:

In determining costs under the census-based method, the State used actual expenditures for special education (as compared to the PJP model), in part, because a study found New Jersey had significantly above-average expenditures in this area. D-1 34; see also D-78 at AB00729; see also Davy, 1 T 89:23-91:25. In fact, this State has a higher special education classification rate than any other state in the country — 12.54%; the national classification average is 8.96%. Gantwerk, 28 T 20:17-21:16; D-159. By way of comparison, the census-based model under SFRA uses a classification rate of 14.69%. N.J.S.A. 18A:7F-51(e).

Generally speaking:

While exceedingly complex, the SFRA formula represents a well considered, even expansive, formula to allow a thorough and efficient education for all children in the State. The same, by definition, would include the children in the Abbott districts.

And more specifically:

In the first year of SFRA funding, the Abbott districts received an average per pupil revenue of $17,325; the average per pupil revenue for the I & J districts was $14,046. D-62. That is, the average per pupil revenue provided to the Abbott districts under SFRA is 23.3 percent higher than the revenues provided in the I & J districts. The same must also be understood in light of the national average per pupil spending in 2005-2006, the last year statistical evidence was available, was $9,154. D-136.

Regarding Abbott District advocates who argued that the SFRA will mean cuts in necessary services:

Many district educators opined it would not be possible to provide a thorough and efficient education with any reduction in their present funding; some testifying every dollar spent currently is necessary to provide a thorough and efficient education. With all due respect to the district representatives commendable efforts on behalf of their students, this assumption is simply rejected. To argue there are no inefficiencies within a district and that every dollar spent currently is necessary to provide a thorough and efficient education is simply unreasonable. Furthermore, some of the “necessities” discussed during the hearings seem overly aspirational – a digital camera for preschool classrooms, three field trips per year as compared to two field trips per year, etc.

Judge Doyne: “The time for reform is now.”

in 2009 twenty-three percent of the students are educated in Abbott districts; seventy-seven percent in non-Abbott districts. D-114. Despite the same, Abbott districts receive the majority of state aid for education. If the Abbott districts do not increase tax levies beyond compliance with the required minimum tax levy, Abbott districts will have available an average of $17,151 in revenues per pupil for the 2008-2009 school year. Assuming the I and J districts raise their tax levies for the 2008-2009 year by four percent (consistent with the local levy growth limitation of N.J.S.A. 18A:7F-38), they will spend an average of $14,117 per pupil. D-20 24.
The time for reform is now.

On the need for a three-year transition period from one formula to another:

While recognizing the defendants’ arguments concerning supplemental funding are not without appeal, this court is satisfied, given the burden imposed, it cannot find SFRA constitutional as applied if supplemental funding is not recognized, if only for the first three year review period. The potential harm to the students in the Abbott districts outweighs the defendants’ assertion there shall be no need for supplemental funding, at least until the realities of implementation are known.

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