New Jersey's High Court Set to Hear Demand for Spending for Poor Schools

The New Jersey Supreme Court heard arguments on whether Governor Chris Christie and lawmakers must restore reduced aid to the poorest school district amid a budget crisis.

Advocates for the poorest districts said Christie, a Republican, and the Democratic-controlled Legislature allocated $1.6 billion less than the amount required under a 2008 law. The impact has been dire, David G. Sciarra, a lawyer for the Education Law Center of Newark, New Jersey, told the justices today in Trenton.

“The state’s aid reductions forced schools to make significant cuts” to programs essential to providing adequate education, Sciarra said, urging the court to order aid restored, regardless of the fiscal crisis.

The diminished funding led to the dismissal of teachers, guidance counselors and librarians, to the elimination of language courses, and to an increase in class sizes, Sciarra said.

A lawyer for the state defended the budget cuts as fiscally necessary. Christie said yesterday that if the state loses the case over the education budget he won’t raise taxes and foresees “monumental” cuts elsewhere.

The Education Law Center represents plaintiffs in the 30- year-old case, known as Abbott v. Burke, over aid to the state’s poorest districts.

State Constitution

The center argues that the cuts violate the constitution’s guarantee of a “thorough and efficient system of free public schools.” A state court judge studied the issue and reached the same conclusion last month, saying the next step is up to the Supreme Court.

The court must order the state to fully implement the formula dictating state funding to the at-risk districts to mitigate further harm, Sciarra said. Fiscal conditions “don’t trump” the constitutional right of the state’s children to an adequate education, he said.

The hearing follows a finding in March by Superior Court Judge Peter Doyne, a special master in the case, who said reductions in aid violated the constitution.

“Education funding could not escape” budget cuts required by New Jersey’s fiscal crisis, attorney Peter G. Verniero, special counsel for the state, told the justices.

Elected officials acted in good faith when decreasing state spending to the so-called Abbott districts by about 6 percent, compared to about 14 percent overall, last fiscal year, he said.

Law in Crisis Time

Justice Barry T. Albin asked Verniero whether citizens’ constitutional rights may be undermined when the state is facing “dire fiscal circumstances.”

“We have to react to the fiscal distress that the state is in,” Verniero said.

Christie claims the Supreme Court is out of touch with the state’s fiscal condition. His budget proposal for the fiscal year that begins July 1 seeks to close a $10.7 billion deficit in the current $29.4 billion plan. He also is calling for changes in teacher tenure and evaluation.

“If this had been a raging success and had pushed up the achievement level of children in those districts, maybe we might be willing to pay for it, but what you have is a 29 percent graduation rate in Newark, an Abbott district,” Christie said yesterday at a town hall meeting in Jackson. “The Supreme Court’s argument is money equals achievement and we know that it doesn’t.”

No Tax Increase

Christie said he won’t raise taxes if the Supreme Court orders him to spend the funds, requiring cuts that could close hospitals or spur “monumental” government workforce cuts.

New Jersey’s 31 Abbott districts received 59 percent, or $4.5 billion, of state education aid to schools in the current fiscal year, up from 36 percent in 1988, Christie said. Per- pupil spending in those districts averaged $16,138, compared to $2,895 in the other districts, which number about 550.

“We are paying for the failed legal theory of a bunch of lawyers in black robes,” he said yesterday.

Verniero, a former state Supreme Court justice and attorney general now with the law firm Sills Cummis & Gross PC, argued that the funding for poor districts is enough to satisfy constitutional requirements. He asked the court to grant lawmakers “breathing room” when seeking budget solutions.

Sciarra urged the justices to adopt the findings by Doyne, who held eight days of hearings and reported last month to the top court. At-risk districts have been hit the hardest by inadequate funding while they are the least able to withstand reductions, he said.

Who’s Hurt Most

“Despite the state’s best efforts, the reductions fell more heavily upon our high-risk districts and the children educated within those districts,” Doyne wrote.

School districts cut reading and summer programs and efforts to help students “struggling and in need of additional help,” Doyne said in his 96-page report. Piscataway schools, for example, cut 14 teachers, pushing class sizes to 27 pupils for some third-graders and up to 32 in high-school, he wrote.

The Supreme Court denied the state’s request that Doyne be allowed to consider the state’s fiscal crisis.

The state said falling federal aid and tax revenue required spending cuts for this fiscal year since the budget must be balanced. The School Funding Reform Act of 2008 “constructs state aid as a perpetually increasing amount of money,” Verniero wrote in court papers.

Doyne’s findings “are of little relevance to the court” because he wasn’t permitted to consider the fiscal crisis, Verniero wrote.

High-Spending State

New Jersey, Verniero wrote, is among the highest-spending states on education per pupil. He cited the testimony at the hearings of a state expert who said that “how money is spent is much more important than how much money is spent” and that cuts in state aid shouldn’t affect student performance.

“No actual evidence exists of what effect these minimal aid reductions might have on student achievement,” Verniero wrote.

Sciarra argued that the opinions of the state’s expert were based on data collected nationwide as opposed to New Jersey.

The Supreme Court may rule on the case before the June 30 end of the budget year, David Rosen, chief fiscal officer for the Office of Legislative Services, told lawmakers last month.

The case is Abbott v. Burke, 62,700, Supreme Court of New Jersey (Trenton).

To contact the reporters on this story: Esme E. Deprez in Trenton, New Jersey, at edeprez@bloomberg.net; David Voreacos in Newark, New Jersey, at dvoreacos@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Mark Tannenbaum at mtannen@bloomberg.net; Michael Hytha at mhytha@bloomberg.net.

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