State Supreme Court to release school funding ruling

| 30 Sep 2011 | 09:42

    TRENTON — The New Jersey Supreme Court says it will announce its decision Tuesday on a major school funding case that could shape the state’s budget and test Gov. Chris Christie’s resolve. At issue is whether cuts in school funding made by Christie and the state Legislature amid a budget crunch a year ago violated a provision of the state constitution that calls for all children to be given a “thorough and efficient” education. The court has made more than 20 previous rulings over more than two decades in the case, known as Abbott v. Burke. It has consistently found that the state needs to do more to educate children in 31 school districts where poverty is concentrated. This ruling is more anticipated than previous ones. Christie, unlike previous governors, has taken a hard stance against what he sees as judicial meddling in matters that should be his and the Legislature’s business. Christie has cited the case as a prime example of why he wants to shake up the membership of the state Supreme Court. He has said he might consider disregarding the ruling on this case if he doesn’t agree with it. The case’s latest chapter goes back to last year’s state budget. With one-time federal economic stimulus money gone, the state’s total subsidies to public schools were down by about $1 billion. Lawyers for the state said New Jersey couldn’t afford to provide more, adding that the cuts were deeper in wealthier districts. For the state budget that takes effect July 1, Christie has proposed an additional $250 million for all schools. The Education Law Center, an advocate for children in the impoverished districts, sued the state. It argued that the state failed to subsidize schools at a level that the court previously found acceptable. A lower-court judge appointed by the Supreme Court to investigate found that the state would have to give schools an additional $1.6 billion to fund the approved formula fully. The law center has asked the court to order the state to meet the requirements of the funding formula. Christie has said if that happens sharp cuts might have to be made to other areas of the state budget, such as aid to towns and hospitals. He said reinstating a higher income tax rate on people who earn more than $400,000 — something some Democrats have urged but which he opposes — would only fill part of the gap. Christie also said boosting spending over the years for the poorest districts hasn’t helped much. Those districts get more than half the state’s funding for schools, leaving other districts to rely mostly on property taxes to pay for schools. The additional state money has meant upgrades to school buildings and free preschools in New Jersey’s low-income cities. But more than two decades after the first Abbott rulings, there’s still a big gap in test scores between most of the low-income schools and the state’s other districts.