Supreme Court Releases School Funding Ruling

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The NJ Supreme Court released its ruling today regarding whether the State violated the constitutional rights of children residing in our 31 poorest school districts by not fully funding the School Funding Reform Act. And the three concurring Justices – Albin, La Vecchia, and Stern – are irate.

Justices Rivera-Soto and Hoens dissented. Justices Rabner and Long recused themselves. The ruling says that the State must budget an additional $500 million in school funding to be divided exclusively among Abbott districts.

Here’s a few examples of the umbrage displayed by the Court, the shrill note of betrayal that echoes through the 59 pages. The State has “retreated from the hard-won progress that has state has made toward guaranteeing the children in Abbott districts the promise of educational opportunity.” It has “failed to honor its commitment.” The State’s defense of the aid cuts exemplifies “faulty logic;” its presentation was “simultaneously premature and laggard.”

To state the question is to present its answer: how is it that children of the plaintiff class of Abbott schoolchildren, who have been designated victims of constitutional deprivation and who have secured judicial orders granting them specific, definite, and certain relief, must now come begging to the Governor and Legislature for the full measure of their education funding? And, how can it be acceptable that we come to that state of affairs because the State abandoned its promise? The State’s position is simply untenable.

Here’s thorough coverage from PolitickerNJ, The Record, and NJEA’s response.

Despite speculation that Gov. Christie would ignore an unfavorable ruling, he said today, “I realize that regardless of my personal beliefs, I must comply with the constitutional requirement.”

A few thoughts:

  • No one wins. Education Law Center sought the full $1.7 billion. The State was hoping for a ruling that recognized NJ’s economic morass. The $500 million neatly syncs with NJ’s recently announced surplus, an odd instance of serendipity given the Court’s insistence that economic circumstances are unrelated to mandated school funding.
  • The extra $500 million to be divvied up among Abbots is less than a third of the total state aid cuts ($1.7 billion). To put it in context, it’s only ½ of Newark Public Schools’ annual budget.
  • As many have already pointed out, a 3-2 decision is hardly a consensus and the author of the ruling struggles with the lack of a quorum.
  • The order ignores the majority of poor students who don’t happen to live in Abbott districts. The Court clearly struggles with this, parsing this restriction to a fare-thee-well and concluding that only the beneficiaries of the previous Abbott rulings have “the historic finding of constitutional deprivation.” In fact, the ruling that forms the basis of this decision – the report from Judge Peter Doyne – makes multiple references (5 that I counted) to the fact that over the decades of Abbott decisions, there’s been a major demographic shift among NJ’s poor families. While most of NJ’s high-needs students once lived in the 31 cities designated as Abbotts, now these children are all over the state and ELC is only representing a portion of them. As Judge Doyne points out, ” [O]f the 1,366,271 students in the State – 282,417, or 20.67 percent, are students in former Abbott districts, leaving the remainder 79.33% of students residing in non-Abbott districts unrepresented. This is as troubling now as it was in the prior remand.”
  • Judge Doyne was particularly struck by testimony for the plaintiff from superintendents from non-Abbott districts, particularly Superintendent Robert Copeland of Parsippany and Superintendent Earl Kim of Montgomery. Neither of those districts will see any extra money. They’re not Abbotts.
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