Politics

Judge Rules Chris Christie’s Education Cuts Violated State Constitution

New Jersey has one of the most progressive education laws in the country — the Abbott v. Burke case produced several rulings requiring the state to equalize public education funding for all students, meaning that poor, urban districts must receive the same relative amount of funding as wealthy suburban districts. Abbott vs. Burke requirements have been characterized as “one of the most remarkable and successful efforts by any court in the nation to cut an educational break for kids from poor families and generally minority-dominated urban neighborhoods.”

Today, a judge found that Gov. Chris Christie (R) violated Abbott v. Burke requirements when he slashed $820 million in state aid to schools last year, because the cuts were slanted too heavily towards poor districts:

Judge Peter Doyne, who was appointed as special master in the long-running Abbott vs. Burke school funding case, today issued an opinion that also found the reductions “fell more heavily upon our high risk districts and the children educated within those districts.”

“Despite spending levels that meet or exceed virtually every state in the country, and that saw a significant increase in spending levels from 2000 to 2008, our ‘at risk’ children are now moving further from proficiency,” he said.

“The difficulty in addressing New Jersey’s fiscal crisis and its constitutionally mandated obligation to educate our children requires an exquisite balance not easily attained,” Doyne wrote. “Something need be done to equitably address these competing imperatives. That answer, though, is beyond the purview of this report. For the limited question posed to the Master, it is clear the State has failed to carry its burden.

As the article notes, Judge Doyne was appointed as a “special master” in this case, and so his finding today will go back to the state Supreme Court, which can choose to act on it. This seems likely to happen. “A special master’s report like this carries great weight with the higher court,” said David Sciarra, the executive director of the Education Law Center. “The evidence was exhaustive, detailed thorough and its conclusions are sobering about the impact of the funding cuts on students across the state, particularly poor students, regardless of where they live.”

Christie has not yet responded to the finding. If he is required by the state Supreme Court to find more funding to at-risk districts, perhaps the governor could reconsider some of his proposed tax cuts for corporations and millionaires.

UPDATE

A Christie spokesman responded to the ruling this evening, blaming the court for exacerbating New Jersey’s fiscal troubles, and sidestepping the central issue of unequally distributed cuts: “The court’s legal mandates on the legislative and executive branches of government have incontrovertibly contributed to our current fiscal crisis without uniformly improving education, particularly for the at-risk students the court claims to be helping with its rulings.”

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