To no one’s surprise, the Education Law Center filed suit yesterday in NJ Supreme Court charging that the Christie Administration is violating the 2008 School Funding Reform Act by cutting state aid to school districts. SFRA overturned decades of Abbott funding by altering the way the state channels extra money to poor schools. Instead of using the designation of an “Abbott” municipality (named for the original plaintiff, Raymond Abbott) for 31 of our poorest areas, the formula sends extra money to individual students, regardless of zip code. SFRA passed probationary muster with the Court, leaving room for additional filings if the state failed to fully fund the formula. Christie cut state aid to all school districts equal to 5% of total budgets this past winter, and here we are. Question for the Court: does the State’s ability to pay have any impact on allocation of fund?
Here’s a quote from today’s New York Times:
Listen closely to the actual budget debate, and there is widespread agreement that New Jersey’s finances are in stunningly bad shape…At a time when many, if not most, states face their gravest budget crises since the Depression, New Jersey has the third-biggest deficit, as a percentage of revenue, trailing Illinois and Nevada, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In raw dollars, the $11 billion deficit in New Jersey for the next fiscal year is the second largest, behind California — and larger than the $9 billion gap facing New York, a much bigger state that is rarely held up as a paragon of sound budgeting.
So, is NJ’s “stunningly bad” fiscal climate relevant to dispersal of school aid? David Sciarra of the ELC (in the role of Don Quixote) says no: “Our Constitution, and the Court ruling, require that every student, regardless of where he or she lives, receives funding at the amount the State itself says is needed to succeed in school..The State, by its devastating aid cut, is disregarding the law and putting the future of our students and state at risk.” Everyone else is, well, not so sure. Some of ELC’s fiercest advocates, like the suburban Garden State Coalition of Schools (GSC), “questioned the timing of the filing” and “hardly jumped to ELC’s support,” according to NJ Spotlight.
Our fiscal situation is dire. Is it reasonable, therefore, to exercise frugality in every arena, including our public school system? Is a rotten economy, an $11 billion budget gap, and one of the highest cost per pupil in the country relevant to school funding? While ELC quixotically poses school funding as a ethical issue (and, indeed, it is), Christie, playing world-weary Sancho Panza, poses it as an economic one (and, indeed, it is). The Governor, in fact, smartly changed tactics from the original state aid cuts, which hit Abbott districts harder, to a different spreadsheet, whereby every district, regardless of need, was hit equally.
ELC is nonetheless trying to frame the issue in a way that does not pit poor districts against suburban districts, simultaneously ignoring the fiscal dimensions of NJ’s plight. In its press release, it says, “The school children claim that the massive cut in State formula aid deprives all New Jersey children — particularly vulnerable, “at-risk” children — of a thorough and efficient education.” Note the word “all.” However, if ELC prevails then suburban districts will eat the reallocation to Abbott districts, thus undermining its strategy (and explaining GSC’s decision to sit on its hands for this one).
In the Spring 2009 final court decision on the constitutionality of the School Funding Reform Act , the Justices wrote,
On the basis of the record before us, we conclude that SFRA is a constitutionally adequate scheme. There is no absolute guarantee that SFRA will achieve the results desired by all. The political branches of government, however, are entitled to take reasoned steps, even if the outcome cannot be assured, to address the pressing social, economic, and educational challenges confronting our state. They should not be locked in a constitutional straightjacket.
In other words, “pressing…economic…challenges” are, indeed, relevant. Budget constraints rule the day, not ethics. Don Quixote can swing away at windmills all he wants; in the end, we can’t afford the economics of his quest.