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Court Ruling Could Mean NJ Budget Scramble

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New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (credit: Craig Ruttle/AP, FILE)

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (credit: Craig Ruttle/AP, FILE)

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — Gov. Chris Christie is warning that if the state Supreme Court rules the way it usually does on a long-running school funding case, it could doom other state services.

The build-up about the immediate consequences gives the chapter of the court case known as Abbott v. Burke even more significance than many of the 20 other decisions in the case dating back to the 1980s.

The question now before the court is whether the state’s cuts in aid to schools for the current academic year were so deep that New Jersey didn’t live up to its constitutional requirement of providing a “thorough and efficient education” to all students.

It’s not clear when it might be decided.

But lawyers for the state and for children in the poorest school districts filed legal papers last week laying out their sides. Oral arguments are scheduled for April 20.

Over the long history of the case, the state Supreme Court has consistently ruled that New Jersey should provide more money to the state’s poorest school districts.

The rulings have led to free preschools for 3- and 4-year-olds in those cities. Those programs are often cited as national models and given credit for improving test scores of grade-school students. The infusion of money has also brought replacements and repairs for many of their decrepit school buildings, extra help for teaching key areas such as reading.

But they’ve rankled opponents in multiple ways. First, they’re a scourge to people, like Christie, who say judges shouldn’t make laws. The rulings have a direct effect on the state’s budget. And Christie cites this case as the main reason he wants to change the makeup of the Supreme Court.

School officials in the state’s suburbs often complain that their districts get relatively little state aid because schools in the places with special help from the state get so much.

Also, as Christie points out frequently, the changes ordered by the court have not brought the educational outcomes in the urban districts close to those in the rest of the state — even though the low-income districts now spend as much on education as the state’s wealthiest districts — and in several cases, more.

Cities like Camden and Newark remain plagued by high dropout rates and low test scores. Christie often tells audiences that less than half the students in Newark graduate from high school, and also notes that 95 percent of those who do graduate and go onto community college need remedial classes.

“The high school diploma they got was worthless,” he said last month in a town hall meeting in Hammonton. “Worthless.”

Christie says more money won’t fix the problems. Instead, he wants to be able to more easily remove ineffective teachers and expand schooling options by offering more publicly funded charter schools and giving some students scholarships — funded by tax-deductible gifts from corporations — to go to private schools. He’s also called for bonuses for top educators who go to work in troubled schools.

Last month, a lower-court judge given a fact-finding assignment by the state Supreme Court calculated that the difference in state aid to local schools between a plan that the court previously found constitutional and what was given for the current year was $1.6 billion.

The Education Law Center, an advocacy group that represents children in low-income cities, says the 2011-12 state budget should restore that amount to schools, and that the state should be required to fund fully its school aid formula for the two years after that.

The advocacy group says that achieving educational equity is so important that a tough economy shouldn’t be a major consideration.

“The history of school funding litigation in this State demonstrates that adequate funding remains the touchstone of constitutional compliance, and that compliance with this court’s decisions has never been entirely excused,” it says in legal papers, “as the state seeks in response to the present enforcement motion, because of year-to-year changes in fiscal conditions.”

The state argues that the executive and legislative branches should be trusted to come up with a fair way to subsidize schools. For the current year, the state sent nearly $7 billion to local school districts. Christie is proposing an increase in state money to districts of about $250 million for the upcoming academic year.

That’s nearly $1.4 billion less than the Education Law Center says is needed.

In its brief filed with the state Supreme Court this week, the state argued that last year’s budget cuts struck an appropriate balance between the disparate state Constitutional requirements providing a “thorough and efficient” education and balancing the budget, even in a time when revenue was declining.

The state’s lawyers argue that Christie’s approach was fair because it cut about 5 percent of the total budgets of every school district in the state. That meant that wealthier schools lost a higher proportion of their state aid — and all of it, in some cases. The cuts meant layoffs of educators and cutbacks of programs across the state, resulting in bigger class sizes, cuts to summer school and extracurricular activities.

Christie says he’s confident the state won’t be ordered to add that much funding to school aid in the upcoming year. But he’s also increasingly using that figure as a worst-case scenario for budgeting.

The governor said money would be diverted from other programs if the court orders more education spending. Christie opposes tax increases, though Democrats in the Legislature have previously pushed for a higher tax level to be restored for the state’s highest earners.

Christie identified several possible sources for the additional school aid, none of them palatable to lawmakers especially in an election year. Christie said $1 billion would be made available by eliminating all property tax relief, including aid to senior citizens and veterans. The state could reduce aid to towns, currently at $1.4 billion, or aid to higher education, including county colleges and scholarships, now at $1.25 billion, he said.

And, the governor said, more than $900 million would be freed up if all hospital aid and charity care was eliminated, an extraordinarily unlikely situation brought up to emphasize the potential magnitude of the high court’s decision.

State Assemblyman John Wisniewski, who is also chairman of the Democratic State Committee, said the education cuts made last year — which were adopted by the Legislature — should not have been made. He said that the court may bring consequences to the governor for the decision.

“Because of a worldwide financial crisis, we cannot be so shortsighted to deny children this year and next year the kind of education they deserve for the rest of their lives because it fits this governor’s conservative talking points,” he said.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)

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