The Christie administration violated the New Jersey Constitution and a court order when it cut more than $1 billion in state aid to public schools in the spring, education advocates will argue before the New Jersey Supreme Court this week.
In another chapter of the 25-year-old Abbott v. Burke school-funding case, the Education Law Center is expected to seek restoration of full state aid in coming years under a formula designed by the Corzine administration in 2008.
During oral argument on Wednesday, Christie administration attorneys are likely to counter that the state faced a gaping budget hole this year and could not afford to comply fully with former Gov. Jon S. Corzine’s School Funding Reform Act of 2008. Aid reductions based on a percentage of school districts’ total budgets were seen as the fairest strategy by the state.
The case comes at a time of tumult for New Jersey’s highest court. Two justices may not participate in the ruling – one because of a potential conflict of interest and another in protest of court appointments.
From the beginning, the Education Law Center challenged parts of the 2008 formula, which sought to distribute aid to all districts with low-income and at-risk students. The center contended that the new formula would harm some of the former Abbott districts, 31 mostly urban and low-income districts including Camden, Gloucester City, Pemberton, and Burlington City in South Jersey.
Before the Corzine formula, court orders won by the law center resulted in those districts receiving what critics considered a disproportionately large share of state aid.
The case at hand goes beyond those 31 districts, said the law center’s executive director, David Sciarra. “This is about statewide funding for all kids,” he said.
In ruling the funding-formula law constitutional in 2009, the high court expressed expectation that the state would continue to provide aid at the levels required by the formula.
A state Education Department spokeswoman declined to comment on the pending litigation. In its court filing against the law center’s motion, however, the state portrayed its education aid cut as necessary, fair, and prudent. “In a fiscal climate that demands retrenched expenditures, it is simply not possible, much less constitutionally compelled, to fully fund” the formula, the state’s filing says. It also states that the aid cutback did not result in “deficiencies of a constitutional dimension” and did not warrant court intervention.
Forcing the state to fully fund education aid would reduce money available to other areas, “rendering asunder the legislative and executive branches’ balancing of many competing and worthy interests that demand state funding,” the state argued.
In addition, it said, the administration’s method of calculating the cuts – in most cases, the state’s contribution was reduced by an amount equal to roughly 5 percent of each district’s total budget – meant that poor districts retained most of their aid. Some affluent districts lost all of theirs.
Paul Tractenberg, a Rutgers University law professor and founder of the law center, disagreed with the state’s logic.
“It’s a matter of priority,” he said, adding that a constitutional requirement must be funded even if it means taking money from something else that is worthwhile.
The state is “trying to change the rules of the game,” Tractenberg said. “The state is effectively asking the court to reverse its earlier decision.”
The case comes to New Jersey’s highest court at an awkward time. Siding with conservatives who have accused the court of legislating from the bench, Christie denied reappointment of Justice John F. Wallace Jr., a Democrat from Gloucester County, in May. As Wallace’s replacement, he has nominated Anne M. Patterson, a Republican lawyer from Morris County.
Since then, the Democratically controlled Senate has refused to consider the nomination. Edwin H. Stern, the former head of the state Superior Court Appellate Division with a Democratic background, was appointed to the seven-member panel temporarily by Chief Justice Stuart Rabner.
Justice Roberto Rivera-Soto has vowed to abstain from future decisions because he considers having an interim justice unconstitutional. Legislators have called for Rivera-Soto’s resignation or impeachment.
Rabner, who served as attorney general when the Corzine administration drafted the 2008 funding formula, may decline to participate in the case as well.
The court’s current situation is “a tremendous concern,” Tractenberg said. “The court is under both external and internal pressure, which makes its decision in this case a very difficult position. “On one hand, they’re under pressure not to bring down further ire from the governor; at the same time, they want to uphold their principles. To the extent of how they respond to the pressures, it’s a very difficult position to be in.”