Court Orders New Jersey to Increase Aid to Schools
The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that a major piece of Gov. Chris Christie’s cost-cutting was unconstitutional and ordered lawmakers to raise spending for poor, urban schools by $500 million next year, despite a state budget shortfall estimated at $10 billion.
The decision is a new milestone in the intertwined disputes over school financing, taxation and the role of the courts that have roiled the state’s politics since the 1970s. And those disputes remain; the ruling intensifies Mr. Christie’s running battles with the Supreme Court and the Legislature, and it will resonate in the coming negotiations to balance the budget, negotiate new contracts with state workers and rescue the government employee pension plans.
The majority in the 3-to-2 decision accused the state of willfully violating previous Supreme Court orders in the long-running school-aid case under review.
“Like anyone else, the state is not free to walk away from judicial orders enforcing constitutional obligations,” Justice Jaynee LaVecchia wrote in the ruling. She added that “the state made a conscious and calculated decision” to renege on the commitment it made two years ago, the last time the case, Abbott v. Burke, went before the court.
In response, Mr. Christie again cited school financing as the chief example of a liberal court run amok, which he vowed to remedy by choosing more conservative justices. Answering questions at a public forum in Cherry Hill, N.J., he said, “I’m going to appoint people who I believe understand their job, which is to interpret the law and not make law from the bench.”
Earlier, in a news conference at the State House, the governor said, “I believe that this decision represents everything that’s wrong with how Trenton has historically operated and everything that I’m here to fight to change.” He said the Supreme Court “should not be dictating how taxpayer dollars are spent and prioritizing certain programs over others.”
While the additional aid ordered by the court was far less than the $1.7 billion requested by some schools advocates, it was still a blow to a governor who has made a national name for himself by cutting spending and assailing perquisites and benefits for public employees, particularly teachers. He has accused the teachers’ union, the New Jersey Education Association, and the courts of promoting the view that more money equals better schools, a position he says has been discredited by decades of failure.
Jon S. Corzine, the Democrat who preceded Mr. Christie as governor, used a one-time infusion of federal stimulus money to increase school spending, even as the state budget shrank. But as that money ran out, Mr. Christie, a Republican who took office last year, cut more than $1 billion in aid to all 591 of the state’s school districts, out of an overall budget of more than $10 billion.
The decision on Tuesday will have no direct impact on most of those districts. Instead, the court order increased aid for only the 31 low-income, urban districts that have long been the subject of the Abbott case. The case, a lawsuit first filed in 1981, has resulted in a series of Supreme Court rulings that have forced the state to funnel billions of dollars into those districts, in cities like Camden, Elizabeth, Jersey City, Newark, Passaic, Paterson, Trenton and Union City.
Mr. Christie said he would comply with the latest ruling, though he had previously suggested that he might ignore such an order. He challenged the Democrats who control the Legislature to figure out where to get the money and ruled out a tax increase to pay for the spending.
Traditionally, the governor and the Legislature spend much of June hammering out a state budget, which is supposed to be adopted by the end of the month.
David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, the plaintiff in the Abbott case, said, “Neither the governor nor the Legislature should walk away from this at this critical point in time.” He said the need remained “to remedy the harmful impact” of aid cuts on children who were not in the so-called Abbott districts.
Stephen M. Sweeney, the State Senate president, said the governor “was well aware that his draconian cuts to education were illegal,” and noted that in his 2009 campaign, Mr. Christie vowed not to cut school financing.
Some lawmakers pointed out that state revenues were running above projections by an amount close to the $500 million mandated by the court, an amount roughly equal to the sum that would be raised by reinstating the so-called millionaire’s tax on the highest incomes, which expired at the end of 2009.
But last year, Mr. Christie vetoed an effort to revive that tax, and this year, as the state’s fiscal crisis eases and every legislative seat is up for election, there appears to be less appetite for raising the issue again.
In practice, most communities pay for their schools primarily with local taxes, not money from Trenton. But according to the State Constitution, the Legislature has the duty to “provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of free public schools.”
The Supreme Court found, in Robinson v. Cahill in 1973, that the state had violated that mandate. The state then adopted its first personal income tax in 1976, to increase school financing.
Abbott, a similar case, followed, producing a string of rulings that said the state still was not living up to its constitutional duty.
Later Abbott rulings required parity between financing for schools in poor, urban districts and those in affluent suburbs. Yet those low-income districts continued to lag far behind in achievement.
For years, Democrats and Republicans alike complained that Abbott concentrated too much aid on a few urban districts, when many suburban and rural districts had smaller but still significant numbers of needy children.
In 2008, Governor Corzine and the Legislature enacted a new school financing formula that steered increased aid to 205 of the state’s districts rather than the 31 urban districts only. The Supreme Court ruled that the new system was acceptable as long as the state adhered to specific financing commitments for the Abbott districts.
On Tuesday, the court found that the state’s budget-cutting “amounts to nothing less than a reneging on the representations it made.”
But the 3-to-2 decision, and the other opinions that were issued, reveal a deeply divided court. One justice, Barry T. Albin, joined in the majority ruling, but also wrote a separate opinion stating that he would have required the state to stick to the 2008 formula for the 205 districts, which would have roughly doubled the ruling’s cost to the state.
Chief Justice Stuart J. Rabner, a former aide to Governor Corzine, recused himself from the case, as did Justice Virginia Long.
The two dissenting justices, Helen E. Hoens and Roberto A. Rivera-Soto, challenged the legality of the ruling, saying significant decisions required the support of four justices no matter how many were present.
Nate Schweber contributed reporting.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: May 26, 2011
An article on Wednesday about an order by the State Supreme Court of New Jersey to raise spending on poor, urban schools paraphrased incorrectly a separate majority opinion by Justice Barry T. Albin. He said he would have told New Jersey to stick to a 2008 school financing formula for 205 districts, not for every district. The article also misstated the effect that Justice Albin’s plan would have had on the cost to the state. It would have roughly doubled it, not more than tripled it.