The New Jersey Constitution requires the state to “provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of free public schools for the instruction of all the children in the State between the ages of five and eighteen years.” Yet, because the state failed to meet this obligation in many of its poorest school districts, the state Supreme Court ordered New Jersey to stop underfunding those districts more than 20 years ago. In 2009, the court finally determined that the state had complied with its decades-old order, and ended much of its oversight of the state’s education funding. Sadly, Gov. Chris Christie (R) almost immediately took this as a license to slash education funding for the poor.
Yesterday, however, the justices reminded Christie that he is not allowed to thumb his nose at the state constitution, and it ordered the state to restore $500 million that had been stripped from the state’s most needy districts. As the court’s official summary of the opinion explains:
[T]he State applied to this Court two years ago, asking to be relieved of the orders that required parity funding and supplemental funding for children in the so-called “Abbott districts” in exchange for providing funding to those districts in accordance with SFRA. The State persuaded this Court to give it the benefit of the doubt that SFRA would work as promised and would provide adequate resources for the provision of educational services sufficient to enable pupils to master the Core Curriculum Content Standards (CCCS). […]
When the Court granted the State the relief it requested, it was not asked to allow, and did not authorize, the State to replace the parity remedy with some version of SFRA or an underfunded version of the formula. In respect of the failure to provide full funding under SFRA’s formula to Abbott districts, the State’s action amounts to nothing less than a reneging on the representations it made when it was allowed to exchange SFRA funding for the parity remedy. Thus, the State has breached the very premise underlying the grant of relief it secured with Abbott XX.
Yesterday’s decision opens a hopeful new chapter for children in struggling school districts. At least 19 state supreme courts have held that their states’ substandard public schools for low-income students violates the state constitution, but these decisions often fall into a predictable pattern. The court orders the state to fix its substandard school districts, the state delays for 20 years or more, and eventually, the state supreme court loses its will and backs down.
Christie clearly hoped that the New Jersey supremes would follow this all-too-common pattern and back away from New Jersey’s constitutional guarantee that an excellent education is every child’s birthright. But when Christie tried to stare the court down, the justices refused to blink.
Yesterday was not a total victory for New Jersey’s school children — the court restored funding to many of the state’s poorest districts, but it declined to restore cuts that benefit struggling students in wealthier districts. Nevertheless, it is a clear rebuke to Chris Christie, and a reminder that conservative governors flout their states’ constitution.