A ruling from the New Jersey Supreme Court is expected today on whether Governor Chris Christie’s cuts to public school funding violated the state constitution and left schools underfunded by as much as $1.7 billion.
The court will decide a lawsuit that claims the cuts violated a 2008 funding formula to support the state’s poorest school districts. Christie, a Republican, said the reductions were necessary to balance the budget and the court should let him resolve the question with the Democratic-controlled legislature. He has warned of “unthinkable” cuts in other state programs if the court rules against him.
The Education Law Center, a Newark-based advocate for the poorest districts, wants the Supreme Court to order the funding restored. Christie, 48, has threatened to defy the court if it orders higher spending. The ruling may lay the groundwork for Christie to appeal to voters again, said Brigid Harrison, a professor of law and politics at Montclair State University.
“He really has staked out an area where it’s very easy for him to win politically no matter what the court’s decision is,” Harrison said in a phone interview. If the court rules against him, “he becomes the fiscally conservative governor who’s willing to defy his Supreme Court, which will garner him another round of national media headlines.”
The Trenton-based court heard arguments April 20 on the case, Abbott v. Burke, which has vexed governors and lawmakers for three decades. Christie’s lawyer, Peter Verniero, argued that ordering funding restored would violate the state’s constitutional obligation to balance the budget. Christie has vowed to avoid tax increases to balance the budget.
Education Law Center attorney David G. Sciarra said failing to restore the funding would 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 in March, saying the next step was up to the Supreme Court.
The underfunding, in violation of a formula set up by the School Funding Reform Act of 2008, was hardest on districts “least able to withstand the reductions,” Judge Peter Doyne wrote in a 96-page report.
Harrison said possible recusals by the seven-judge panel may allow Christie to claim that any decision isn’t legitimate. In a May 19 radio call-in show, he said he hasn’t decided how he will proceed if the court orders the funding restored.
“I’m going to wait and see what the court does, and I’m not going to take any options off the table,” he said in his monthly “Ask the Governor” radio appearance on WKXW-FM in Ewing.
In other forums, Christie has said the 31 poorest districts receive 59 percent of state education aid, putting a fiscal strain on the other 573 districts. The court’s decision may bolster his case for lowering the percentage of state education funding funneled into the poorest districts.
The decision may allow Christie to reset state funding on education at a level lower than that mandated by the school funding formula put in place by his predecessor Jon Corzine, the Democrat he unseated in the November 2009 election.
Harrison said she expects any decision to be appealed by the losing side based upon the number of justices who rule. She said Education Law Center may cite the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guaranteeing equal protection under the law because so many students in the affected districts are minorities.
“This is a watershed in terms of Christie’s plans and what he can do in terms of the state budget,” she said. “This is an ideological watershed because you see him saying he won’t comply with the decision.”
The case is Abbott v. Burke, M-1293, New Jersey Supreme Court (Trenton).
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