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Supreme Court Orders Full Funding for Abbott Districts

Narrow 3-2 decision sure to spark off controversy and confrontation.

School officials from around the state are waiting to see how Gov. Chris Christie and state lawmakers comply with a state supreme court decision Tuesday ordering the state to provide $500 million more in funding to poorer school districts.

By a 3-2 vote, the court ordered the state to fully fund the School Funding Reform Act, as it applies to 31 districts with a high percentage of "disadvantaged" students. That law, adopted in 2008, promised to provide school districts throughout New Jersey with enough money to enable their students to achieve the "thorough and efficient" education promised in the New Jersey state constitution.

But in the 2011 budget proposed by Gov. Chris Christie and adopted by the legislature, SFRA was under-funded by almost $1.6 billion, according to the court's calculations. The governor and lawmakers said they had no choice, given the state's $11 billion budget deficit.

But a majority of the justices rejected that argument. Now the governor and lawmakers must decide where to find the extra $500 million, including the possibility of re-allocating school funds to take money away from wealthier districts and move it to districts where students have poorer performance.

The governor and lawmakers each blamed the other Tuesday afternoon for the court ruling. While agreeing to abide by the court decision, Gov. Christie said it would be up to the legislature to figure out how to come up with the money. Democratic lawmakers blamed the governor for submitting the initial school budget and said the governor had "brought the courts back into New Jersey education," in the words of State Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Gloucester.

At the center of the debate is the supreme court's 1985 decision in Abbott v. Burke, in which it ruled that the New Jersey constitution requires the state to provide a "thorough and efficient system of free public schools."

The justices found that the state was not meeting that burden and ordered lawmakers to develop a plan for doing so, emphasizing the need to provide both an amount of funding and predictable funding.

In several decisions in intervening years, the court and state officials battled over various plans to comply with the justices' order, until 2008, when the legislature passed the School Funding Reform Act (SFRA).

The state asked the court to approve SFRA as meeting the constitutional requirement to provide a quality education. The court agreed to give the state a chance to prove that SFRA would work, although insisting it be reviewed in three years.

In her majority opinion, Justice Jaynee LaVecchia wrote that the court made it clear in ruling on the 2008 law that it would only meet the court's approval if full funding was provided for the so-called Abbott districts. She cited the court's language that, "Our finding of constitutionality is premised on the expectation that the State will continue to provide school funding aid during this and the next two years at the levels required by SFRA’s formula each year."

She concluded, "Regrettably, the State did not honor its commitment."

Tuesday's ruling does not require the state to fully fund the SFRA, but rather only to provide full funding to the Abbott districts, which include school systems in poor towns such as Long Branch, Keansburg, Neptune, and Asbury Park.

The Newark-based Education Law Center filed suit against the state after the 2011 budget was passed, arguing that the state was required to fully fund SFRA. The state countered that it did not have enough money to fully fund the law, and also argued that the amount of money provided in the 2011 budget was sufficient to allow school districts to meet the constitutional requirement of a "thorough and efficient" education.

The supreme court appointed a judge known as a special master to hear evidence on that argument. The special master, Judge Peter E. Doyne, reported in March that after hearing testimony from school superintendents in both rich and poor districts, he concluded that school systems were being forced to layoff teachers and cut back programs, and that in the poorer Abbott districts, less money meant that students there would get a poorer education.

That set the stage for Tuesday's ruling.

How Gov. Christie and state lawmakers will respond is not clear. A new revenue forecast for state tax collections predicts that the state may take in between $500 and $900 million more than anticipated.

That money could be used to comply with the court's order, but the governor has already said he would like to use at least some of it to provide property tax relief. Alternatively, he and state lawmakers could make further re-allocations of existing state school funding to shift more money to the Abbott districts, while also using some of the expanded tax revenues.

“The New Jersey School Boards Association believes in fair and equitable distribution of state aid," said Raymond R. Wiss, president of the New Jersey School Boards Association via release.  "In 2008, NJSBA supported the principles of the School Funding Reform Act, based on the act’s recognition that at-risk students attend schools in communities throughout New Jersey, not just in 31 communities.  The 2008 funding law also attempted to help those middle- and moderate-income communities, which suffer from high property tax burdens and still have been unable to fund their education programs at levels considered adequate by the state.

“Today’s court decision does not resolve these matters.”

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