Gov. Christie doesn’t need to wait for another state Supreme Court ruling to adequately fund New Jersey’s poorest schools.
The appointed special master in New Jersey’s decades-long school funding case ruled last week that $1 billion in school-aid cuts made by the Christie administration last year meant poor students weren’t being provided the “thorough and efficient education” mandated by the state constitution.
In a 96-page ruling last week, Superior Court Judge Peter Doyne concluded that poor children in high-risk districts such as Camden were especially hard-hit by the funding shortfall. The state Supreme Court now must weigh in, since Doyne’s opinion is nonbinding.
The high court years ago decided in the landmark Abbott v. Burke case that the state must provide adequate funding to improve poor, failing school districts.
Previous rulings required the state to give extra aid to 31 mostly urban districts to put their spending on par with wealthier districts. As a result, these so-called Abbott districts were receiving more than half of the state’s annual education funding.
That was until a more equitable funding formula was approved by the state Supreme Court in 2008, which allowed the state to treat all public school districts generally the same, but give additional funding to low-income districts.
The new formula had great potential, but the state, due to budget woes, has not funded poor schools as it should under Christie or former Gov. Jon Corzine.
The Education Law Center, representing the poor districts, challenged the funding cuts. It argued in court that the state’s budget cuts have perpetuated a system of have and have-not districts.
Doyne agreed that the budget cuts had disproportionately affected high-risk districts with the neediest students. He said 36 percent, or 205 districts out of 560, were not adequately funded in the current fiscal year. Those districts have 72 percent of the state’s “at-risk” students.
To fully fund districts according to the formula, the state must come up with an additional $1.6 billion. Christie argues that his cuts were made equitably. But that’s not the point. Poor schools require additional funding because their needs are greater.
Charters and vouchers are Christie’s preferred routes to education reform. But he can’t ignore the needs of students who aren’t in those programs. It shouldn’t take another court ruling to get him to reassess his priorities and adequately fund poor schools.