Like many of you, I anxiously awaited the New Jersey Supreme Court’s latest ruling on the school funding formula. I was a bit worried when it did not occur last week since I was afraid the world was going to end on Saturday and I would never know how the Supreme Court was going to rule. Perhaps they delayed their decision to this week, just in case the world did end on May 21 and their ruling would become immaterial. As we all found out, the world did not end, and on Tuesday the Supreme Court rendered a 3-2 decision in the latest Abbott court case.
Usually court decisions are used as the final step in a process. TV shows like The People’s Court and Judge Judy are great because the court rules and that is that. That’s not how it works when it comes to education funding cases in New Jersey. I look at this ruling not as a final decision but the beginning of a new discussion. Over the next year or so it will lead to discussion and debate on how we fund education in New Jersey and who decides how we fund education. It will no doubt involve more court rulings. I for one am glad that they began using Roman numerals to designate the Abbott rulings (this latest one is Abbott XXI) like they do with the Super Bowl. If you think about it, it has been a series of decisions that lead to further discussion but never to a conclusion.
What will be discussed? Obviously there are political ramifications of this decision. This decision now changes the state budget debate. The governor’s proposed budget did not account for this additional expenditure. But luckily it also did not account for the unexpected additional tax revenue of between $500-$900 million that came in. The governor has thrown the matter into the Legislature’s lap telling them to decide how to disburse the education aid. They may want to give the school districts that were not named in the court decision extra aid. Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver seem to be inclined to do that in some fashion. But the governor might not be so inclined.
It also seems that this decision has driven a wedge between many school districts. Two years ago when the Supreme Court accepted the Legislature’s and governor’s school funding formula as a remedy (the School Funding Reform Act -SFRA), the principle was that the money should follow the child, and not be tied to the district. Needy children don’t only live in the Abbott districts. At the time, Gov. Corzine pointed that 49 percent of the at-risk students in the state lived outside of Abbott district boundaries. The SFRA would help many districts such as Woodbridge, Piscataway and others that had many at-risk students but not the designation of being an Abbott district. In fact after the Supreme Court’s 2009 ruling there was a debate as to whether the Abbott designation was needed anymore. But now that designation seems to be back.
When he argued on behalf of the Abbott districts, David Sciarra of the Education Law Center argued for the formula to be fully funded for all the districts. The court, however, did not see it that way. This opens up the possibility of going back to the old arguments that can to drive a wedge between districts. We’ll be watching what happens with the budget between now and June 30.
After the state budget is decided, it seems that governor would like to take on two more issues. One is creation of a new school funding formula. While he has hinted at that for some time, it is difficult to see him getting it through a Democrat-controlled legislature. Plus, the state Supreme Court would present another hurdle for him. Which leads to another issue: the make-up of the New Jersey Supreme Court. which Gov. Christie has made no secret that he wants to change. The importance of that issue was highlighted by the fact that only four sitting justices participated in this latest decision. There is one vacancy on the court, two other justices recused themselves, and Judge Edwin Stern, who was part of the majority in the ruling, is temporarily assigned to the court.
I think the governor may really emphasize these issues since he is effective when in attack-mode, and the state Supreme Court may soon be his main target.
This decision had an added element of drama, and that was whether the governor would follow the court’s ruling. He made some statements before the decision was issued that hinted that he might not. Gov. Christie answered that question soon after the decision was issued, when he said he would.
If you have read any of my past blogs or updates, you know that I believed that the Supreme Court would not rule in Gov. Christie’s favor and stay their hand, nor would they rule to award that the entire funding formula be fully funded in one year. I suspected that they would look for a compromise but the one they gave was not the one I anticipated. A divided court ruled that the state should fully fund the formula for the Abbott Districts only. The court’s reasoning was that the Abbotts were the original plaintiffs and so the court’s jurisdiction was limited to them.
The Supreme Court had barely released this decision when the reactions from educators and politicians began to flood in. Even within the court the justices seem to have different views. Justice Albin wanted to fund the formula for all 205 districts which are spending “under adequacy” while Justice Hoens, who dissented, thought the court should stay out of it.
So in the end what do we have with this court decision? We get a deeply divided Supreme Court, a divided group of politicians, and a divided education community.
What we don’t get is a resolution to the issue. That’s nothing new, but the fact that it has been unresolved for 30 years is cold comfort.