BY TOM HESTER SR.
Gov. Chris Christie's decision to cut state aid to schools by nearly $1 billion in the 2010-11 budget left New Jersey's schools unable to provide a conditionally mandated "thorough and efficient" education to the New Jersey nearly 1.4 million school children, a state Superior Court judge held Tuesday.
Judge Peter Doyne, who was appointed as special master in the Abbott vs. Burke school funding case, issued an opinion that also found the aid reductions "fell more heavily upon our high risk districts and the children educated within those districts."
The judge was referring to the state’s 31 poorest districts such as Newark, Camden, Asbury Park and Phillipsburg. Christie has maintained improving education in the urban districts is one of his main priorities.
"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," Doyne declared.
The Abbott vs. Burke case returned to Superior Court after the Newark-based Education Law Center, a school advocacy group, filed a motion charging that Christie's aid cuts violated the state's school funding formula.
Christie reduced school aid as part of his successful attempt to overcome a $10.5 billion budget deficit. He has proposed raising aid by $250 million in the 2011-12 budget.
Reacting to Doyne's report, Michael Drewniak, Christie's press secretary, said, "Judge Doyne himself acknowledges that the Supreme Court limited his inquiry by excluding consideration of the impact of the state’s unprecedented budget crisis. Critically, he also noted that, despite the fact New Jersey meets or exceeds all other states in spending for “at-risk” students, many of those students continue to fail to meet basic educational proficiency.
The Supreme Court should at last abandon the failed assumption of the last three decades that more money equals better education, and stop treating our state’s fiscal condition as an inconvenient afterthought," Drewniak said. "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 claim’s to be helping with its rulings."
Doyne stated that the state would have needed $1.6 billion to fully fund the state School Funding Reform Act formula.
The Education Law Center issued a statement that declared, in part, “Judge Doyne's detailed findings and conclusions provide a sobering analysis of the result of state aid cuts on New Jersey's public schools. In finding that the School Funding Reform Act (SFRA) formula is underfunded by $1.6 billion, or 19 percent, in the current year, the special master highlighted evidence of the inability of districts to provide the programs necessary for students to meet State academic standards, particularly at-risk students across the state.
“Judge Doyne's extensive fact finding on the SFRA "adequacy" level — or the spending amount the state has determined is necessary for each district to provide the New Jersey core curriculum — includes evidence that 205 school districts, or 36 percent, now fall below adequacy as a result of aid cuts in (2010-11), and that almost three-quarters of the state's at-risk students live in those districts.
“Judge Doyne also goes on to conclude " ... that despite the best effort of the superintendents, the CCCS [Core Curriculum Content Standards] are not being met at existing funding levels. The loss of teachers, support staff and programs is causing less advanced students to fall farther behind and they are becoming demonstrably less proficient.
"(The) Education Law Center, as counsel for the plaintiff schoolchildren, will now make the case that Judge Doyne's detailed findings should be sustained and that the SFRA formula must be properly implemented. The special master's report is an important step towards providing all New Jersey public school children with the education they need, deserve and are constitutionally entitled to receive.”
Assemblyman Lou Greenwald (D-Camden), the lower house’s Budget Committee chairman, said Doyne‘s findings re-emphasize how Christie’s 2010-11 budget “both overburdened property taxpayers and endangered education for our children.
“The fact that the greatest impact of the governor’s cut was felt by at-risk students is, unfortunately, more evidence his budget did not include his oft-touted shared sacrifice,” Greenwald said. “The governor has boasted about a 1 percent school funding increase in his current budget plan that fails to make up for the largest property tax hike since 2007 or solve the over-reliance on property taxes. If the (Supreme) court accepts these findings, the governor’s budgeting philosophy will be further called into question. We’ll all have to work cooperatively moving forward on an approach that meets constitutional muster while protecting taxpayers and children.”
Senate Republican Leader Tom Kean (R- Union) said the report shows state aid is not the problem in failing school districts.
"Judge Doyne's report proves that money is not the problem for chronically failing school districts in New Jersey," Kean said. "His assertion that the former Abbott (the 31 poor) districts are moving 'further from proficiency' despite spending more per pupil than almost every other state in America is a condemnation of education policies that favor money over accountability and innovation.
"What state government and the education establishment have been doing in New Jersey isn't working for students in failing districts," the senator said. "To respond by throwing more taxpayer dollars at the problem would be the definition of insanity and is unlikely to improve the education of a single student. Judge Doyne's report should serve as a wake up call to the Legislature that now is the time to act on outcomes-based education reforms that reward the best teachers, easily remove bad teachers from the classroom, and holds each district accountable for student achievement."
Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon (R-Monmouth), the senior Republican on the Budget Committee, said, “Everyone who pays property taxes or cares about education in New Jersey should brace themselves for another potential blow from the New Jersey Supreme Court.
“The beleaguered taxpayers of New Jersey, who carry the worst burden in the nation, deserve for us all to focus on spending their money more wisely, rather than spending more of it,” O‘Scanlon said. “Judge Doyne agreed that that is a prudent approach for education funding, but, due to the narrow focus of his charge, offered a contradictory opinion to the Supreme Court.
“I’m terribly concerned about what the court may mandate, but I hope it will take into account the fiscal realities being faced by all the people of New Jersey,” the Assemblyman added. “I will fight any attempt by errant Legislative leaders – under cover of a court ruling – to further burden our taxpayers or interfere with Governor Christie’s budget proposal to increase education aid throughout New Jersey.”
The state Attorney General's Office has argued that the cuts were necessary because of the state government’s financial situation.
"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 stated. "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."
Doyne’s report will be considered by the state Supreme Court as it considers how to rule in the case brought by the Education Law Center.