Divining Christie’s Fiscal Strategy

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When Gov. Christie slashed $819 million in state school aid on March 16th he wasn’t simply trying to balance a budget. In one fell swoop, our fearless leader opted to tackle a slew of thorny problems that have stymied the effectiveness of public education in New Jersey for decades. If you live in Moorestown or Montgomery or Mahwah, one of our many well-to-do suburbs, then your school system gleams with high achievement and success. But if you live in Camden or Trenton or Willingboro, your school system reeks of poverty and failure. Welcome to New Jersey, home of the most segregated and expensive school system in the nation.

School districts had been told to expect state aid cuts of up to 15%, a troubling scenario but nothing like the crushing blow of 5% of total budgets that Gov. Christie announced on the 16th. Within moments some school districts were cut by more than $10 million. New Jersey Education Association leaders, accustomed to ushering local units to annual 5% pay increases and free benefits, ran smack into unprecedented salary caps, mandatory contributions, pension reform, and (just this week) promise of extra money if local bargaining units accept salary freezes. Poor urban districts, however, already beleaguered by cash cuts engendered by former Gov. Corzine’s School Funding Reform Act (intended to curtail unsustainable costs per pupil under the guise of equity), made out better than expected: with so much of their revenue coming from state aid, a 5% cut of total budgets favored their bottom line far more the threatened 15%. .

The end result for wealthy districts was fiscal havoc; the end result for poor districts was cuts that manage to preserve the Abbotty flavor of fiscal compensation for impoverished students. Example: West Windsor/Plainsboro Regional Schools, a wealthy district, lost $7.5 million out of its $166 million budget. Trenton, West-Windsor Plainsboro’s poor Mercer County neighbor, lost $12.4 million of its $265 million budget.

Let’s divine Gov. Christie’s strategy. Question: Why didn’t he stick with the initially proposed 15% in state aid? Answer: Abbott district advocates, primarily the Education Law Center, are drooling over a chance to run back to the NJ Supreme Court waving budgetary evidence that the State DOE is violating Corzine’s School Funding Reform Act, and 15% aid cuts would have been dangerously close to that fine line. ELC is posturing for a fight, pumping out press releases like a geyser (here, here, and here), accumulating resentments over diminishing influxes of cash begot by Corzine’s newborn funding formula. Far better for Christie to sit tight and wait for 2012 when four out of seven Supreme Court justices will reach the ends of their terms and he can appoint more friendly jurists.

Here’s Gov. Christie on the prospects for reappointing sitting justices:

I did say during the campaign that I do not subscribe to the theory that people once appointed must be reappointed. I know that’s the way it’s been in the state. But I don’t think we set up the constitution with a method where the executive has to reappoint after seven years before tenure attaches just for fun. I think we did it because they want you to make an evaluation and a judgment. If we’ve learned anything over the course of the last year, it is that elections have consequences.

The School Funding Reform Act is due for reevaluation by the State Supreme Court in 2012. Look for a new set of justices more sympathetic to the ineffectiveness of remedying educational inequities through cash compensation.

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