New Jersey’s poorest students have been hurt the most by Governor Chris Christie and the Legislature underfunding schools by $1.6 billion, a state-court judge said in a report filed in a lawsuit over budget cuts.
Judge Peter Doyne is helping the state Supreme Court weigh the impact of school budget reductions that Christie, a Republican, and the Democratic-controlled Legislature made last year to balance New Jersey’s budget. The inadequate funding, 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,” the judge said.
“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 in the 96-page report made public today. “The greatest impact of the reductions fell upon our at-risk students.”
Doyne said his job as a special master was to determine whether current spending levels permit school districts to meet their requirement of providing a “thorough and efficient system of free public schools.”
“The answer to this limited inquiry can only be ‘no,’” Doyne wrote. “The more daunting questions have been reserved by and for our Supreme Court.”
The school-funding law gave extra money to the poorest districts, following cases known as Abbott v. Burke that spanned three decades. In 2009, the Supreme Court said that law was constitutional and fairly replaced the previous system. The Education Law Center, a Newark-based nonprofit that advocates for the districts, said in a lawsuit that Christie’s cutbacks for the 2010-11 school year violated the court’s ruling on the funding formula.
Doyne held a series of hearings this year and reviewed thousands of pages of exhibits before reaching his conclusions. He said his task was to analyze whether the 19 percent spending reduction for the 2011 fiscal year allows the state to provide the education level required by the state Constitution.
While Christie’s budget sought “not to disadvantage districts most reliant upon state aid,” the cutbacks fell “on those districts least able to withstand the reductions,” the judge ruled.
He said that while the state has made progress in providing fair and equitable education funding, “how to maintain that progress in light of daunting fiscal realities” is a conundrum for the Supreme Court. “How money is spent is much more important than how much money is spent,” Doyne said.
Michael Drewniak, a Christie spokesman, said today in a statement that the Supreme Court “should at last abandon the failed assumption of the last three decades that more money equals better education, and stop treating our state’s fiscal condition as in inconvenient afterthought.”
“The court’s legal mandates on the legislative and executive branches of government have incontrovertibly contributed to our current fiscal crisis without uniformly improving education, particularly for the at-risk students the court claims to be helping with its rulings,” he said.
The state spends more than $17,600 per pupil and still has more than 100,000 students trapped in 200 failing schools, Christie said in his Feb. 22 budget address.
An attorney who has argued the case for the Education Law Center, David Sciarra, didn’t immediately return a call seeking comment.
The case now moves back to the Supreme Court.
“The state Supreme Court will of course have final say and we await its decision, but the special master’s findings re-emphasize how the governor’s budget both overburdened property taxpayers and endangered education for our children,” state Assemblyman Lou Greenwald, a Cherry Hill Democrat who is chairman of the budget committee, said in a statement.
Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean, a Republican from Westfield, said that Doyne’s report “proves that money is not the problem for chronically failing school districts.”
“What state government and the education establishment have been doing in New Jersey isn’t working for students in failing districts,” Kean said. “To respond by throwing more taxpayer dollars at the problem would be the definition of insanity and is unlikely to improve the education of a single student.”
Retired Supreme Court Justice Peter Verniero said in a statement that Doyne’s leeway was limited.
“The Supreme Court, however, has discretion to consider the state’s fiscal situation in deciding the questions before it,” said Verniero, now an attorney at Sills Cummis & Gross PC in Newark, New Jersey. “Whether or how it will do so is a key question.”