A judge says New Jersey's education aid cuts violate state constitution

Posted: March 23, 2011

In a major defeat for the Christie administration, a Superior Court judge ruled Tuesday that last year's deep aid cuts did not permit New Jersey's schools to provide the "thorough and efficient education" required by the state's constitution.

Judge Peter Doyne's 96-page advisory report that opened with an allusion to Shakespeare's Henry V did not suggest what action should follow. The Bergen County jurist left those "more daunting questions" to the Supreme Court.

Depending on what the high court decides - and it could decide to order no action - the matter could have significant financial repercussions for the state.

Doyne's reports says New Jersey would have needed an additional $1.6 billion to comply fully with its funding-formula law last year. Faced with a deficit of nearly $11 billion, Christie slashed education aid about $820 million. In his new budget, the governor is proposing to add $250 million for the schools.

Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak said the high court should take a cue from one of Doyne's findings, namely that relatively high education spending has not been a guarantee that at-risk students will meet proficiency standards.

"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," Drewniak said, blaming court mandates for contributing to the state's fiscal problem "without uniformly improving education."

In his report, Doyne acknowledged the difficulty in balancing the state's fiscal problems with its constitutional education mandate, but he said, repeatedly, that the state failed to prove its funding was adequate.

"Something needs to be done to equitably address these competing imperatives," wrote Doyne, who was appointed special master by the Supreme Court in January and charged with fact finding. "That answer, though, is beyond the purview of this report. For the limited question posed to this Master, it is clear the state has failed to carry its burden."

Despite the state's efforts to cut fairly, Doyne wrote, "the reductions fell more heavily upon our high-risk districts and the children educated within those districts."

Thirty-six percent of the state school districts were funded at a level deemed less than adequate under the funding formula, and 72 percent of at-risk students live in those districts, he wrote.

The Education Law Center, which argued the case against the Christie cuts, will seek full future funding if the Supreme Court accepts Doyne's findings, said executive director David Sciarra.

"We'll be pressing the court to make sure the formula is properly funded in the next school year," Sciarra said.

Doyne, in his report, as in some of the hearings, appeared to be telling the state it was not addressing the narrow question at hand. In his recap of the state's witnesses, the judge seemed to view some of their testimony as providing proof for the opposing side.

All sides have until April 14 to respond to Doyne's findings. While his report is strictly advisory, it could prove significant. In 2009, he advised the Supreme Court, after similar fact-finding hearings, to find the funding formula to be constitutional. The court agreed. Borrowing from Shakespeare, the first line of Doyne's report is: "And so, once again, unto the breach."

The formula was enacted under Gov. Jon S. Corzine. Its intent was to spread education aid more evenly to all districts with poor students, rather than the court-ordered concentrating of aid on the 31 so-called Abbott districts. The former Abbotts, largely urban and low-income, still get more than 50 percent of the state's aid. The Supreme Court ruled the formula, if fully funded, could provide a "thorough and efficient education."

Reaction to Doyne's report varied greatly. Although the state lost its case before Doyne, some observers speculated that if the high court requires the state to find more funding for education, a backlash from taxpayers and local governments could ultimately play in the administration's favor.

Richard Bozza, director of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators, said districts would welcome more aid, but he said he doubted it would come soon enough to have an impact on current proposed budgets.

"They can't operate on that hope," he said.

Lynne Strickland, head of the Garden State Coalition of Schools, said that if the court ordered more aid, it was unclear which districts it would go to. Moreover, she said, some suburban districts will be worried they will lose aid if there is a redistribution, including perhaps the modest increase Christie has proposed.

"Now they're going to feel like, 'Uh-oh, is the other hand going to take it away?' "

Frank Belluscio, spokesman for the New Jersey School Boards Association, said his group recognizes the state's financial problems but appreciates Doyne's saying the state has a responsibility to the schools.

"As the economy recovers, the state has a responsibility to renew its commitment to adequate financial support for public education," he said.

Legislative response split along party lines.

"The fact that the greatest impact of the governor's cut was felt by at-risk students is, unfortunately, more evidence his budget did not include his oft-touted shared sacrifice," said Assembly Budget Committee Chairman Louis D. Greenwald (D., Camden).

State Sen. Thomas Kean Jr. (R., Union) seized on the report's comment on proficiency vs. expenditures as proof that money was not the answer.

"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," Kean said.

A local superintendent, Scott Oswald of Collingswood, however, said he thought the state failed to prove that money does not matter. He said it does.

"From counseling to bullying to homework clubs to health, schools pick up many more responsibilities today than they were asked to assume just 25 years ago. All this costs money," he said.

Contact staff writer Rita Giordano at 856-779-3841 or rgiordano@phillynews.com.

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