TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — New Jersey Senate Republicans have been asked to consider taking a unified position on public education that includes removing the Supreme Court from school funding decisions and granting the Legislature the power to determine what it means to provide a “thorough and efficient” education in public schools.
A Republican strategy memo, laid out in an email from Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. to his caucus Friday and obtained by The Associated Press, asks fellow GOP senators for feedback on a three-pronged education plan in wake of a Supreme Court order requiring the state to invest $500 million more in 31 poor school districts.
“The purpose of this email is to put forth what I believe to be the strongest course of action for the caucus as a whole and solicit your feedback and/or approval or disapproval,” Kean wrote.
The plan includes supporting a constitutional amendment ending judicial interference in school funding decisions and giving the state wiggle room to reduce education funding in lean budget years. The resolution, sponsored by Sen. Steven Oroho of Sparta and co-sponsored by the other 15 members of the GOP caucus, was introduced in January but hasn’t gained traction. It would require voter approval.
“It was meant as a framework for discussion within the caucus in light of the latest Supreme Court decision,” Adam Bauer, communications director for the Senate Republicans, said of the email. “It’s a proposed plan for discussion — nothing’s formalized, nothing’s finalized.”
Kean did not return messages for comment Saturday and Sunday.
Many Republicans, including Gov. Chris Christie, have disagreed with prior Supreme Court rulings on school funding, which have repeatedly ordered more funding for poor districts, known as Abbotts, in cities lacking a sufficient tax base to fully fund public education. Most recently, the court determined that Christie’s education cuts were too deep to provide poor children with the “thorough and efficient” education the constitution requires. The order scrambled the state budget-making process weeks before a balanced budget must be adopted by June 30 and left some clamoring for the Legislature to assume a stiffer posture against the activist court.
“I have a plan for the Republicans, keep the funding formula intact,” said Senate Democratic Leader Barbara Buono, an advocate for public education funding. “And we need to build in models of successful school districts. The great equalizer is having a quality educational system that is accessible for all.”
Besides pushing the Oroho amendment, Kean’s approach includes advocating a change in the school funding formula so it allocates more money to suburban districts without shortchanging city schools, and embracing Gov. Chris Christie’s education reform agenda, including ending traditional teacher tenure, tying teacher evaluations to student achievement and establishing merit pay. Kean suggests a push to make the Abbott districts more accountable for the money they receive, but he doesn’t specify where additional funding would come from for 174 other districts the court says are inadequately funded.
“This course of action stays true to Republican principles, complies with public opinion, removes the court from school funding decisions, and requires accountability within the education system,” Kean said in the memo. “It satisfies the sentiments expressed at our last caucus without alienating large swaths of the public.”
Kean cites recent polling data to build his case to the caucus, saying solid majorities of women, independent and Republican voters all oppose education cuts in suburban and poor districts.
“Cuts to education are deeply unpopular, even among Republicans; beating up on Abbotts isn’t wildly popular with Republicans, let alone anyone else; everyone understands that money isn’t the best way to improve education, but they’re not willing to give it up; and reform proposals put forward by Gov. Christie and GOP senators dealing with tenure, merit pay, and salary caps are stone cold winners,” Kean wrote.
Kean’s memo doesn’t suggest possible support for other proposed constitutional amendments sponsored by Republicans in the Senate or Assembly that allowing certain court orders to be defied or giving the Legislature final authority over public education. It also doesn’t mention an amendment proposed by Sen. Michael Doherty, R-Oxford, that would do away with extra funding for poor children, and would provide equal school aid for each student no matter where they live.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)