Tuesday was decision day after months of arguments and deliberation pertaining to the state’s school battle over school funding being discussed in the Abbott v. Burke case. At the heart of the case was the $800 million in education aid that was cut from last year’s budget. The Education Law Center (ELC) filed the challenge to Christie’s cuts as they saw them as “indisputably violating” the state’s obligation to ensure funding for the state’s schools especially its poorer ones. The case was the latest in a series of court challenges in the last four decades that in some way contain arguments for funding in Abbott districts in the state. Those districts are traditionally the state’s poorest and feature schools and students that are often behind the curve of what might be expected. If the court was to rule that the state must restore up to $1.7 billion for public schools, Governor Christie’s reaction and future decisions were still a bit uncertain.
When the New Jersey Supreme Court gathered on Tuesday morning, they ruled that the state must spend an additional $500 million on public education in poor districts over the next year. The court was far from being overwhelmingly on the same page when it came to the case and the five justices were fairly split in the 3-2 ruling. It was not a total victory for education advocates, who were hoping for more money to be ordered to be spent on school aid across the state. Nonetheless, the $500 million will certainly lessen the funding hole that was likely to occur as part of Christie’s $29.4 budget. After last week’s announcement of the extra tax revenue income headed the state’s way, this $500 million will also assist Christie and the State Legislature as they iron out a budget by July 1st.
Associate Justice Jaynee LaVecchia writing on behalf of the majority opinion stated that Christie’s cuts to education spending were “consequential and significant”.
Furthermore, LaVecchia wrote,
“Indeed, our holding in (the 2009 case) was a good-faith demonstration of deference to the political branches’ authority, not an invitation to retreat from the hard-won progress that our state had made toward guaranteeing the children in Abbott districts the promise of educational opportunity. Regrettably, the state did not honor its commitment.”
“Although we are sympathetic to the difficulties that the state’s failure to abide by its statutory formula for education funding has caused to children in districts statewide, we are limited in our ability to order relief in this matter. The Abbott litigation has proceeded with two distinct adversarial parties: on the one side, New Jersey schoolchildren who attend schools in certain constitutionally deficient districts; and on the other side, the state, who has defended its funding schemes as consistent with the thorough and efficient clause.”
Associate Justice Barry Albin also wrote on behalf of the majority decision. Albin expressed a need to fund more than the bare minimum that was ruled upon in the decision. As Albin stated,
“Those school districts were constitutionally shortchanged in the amount of $972,930,819 for FY 2011 under (the school funding formula). We cannot undo the past for the affected at-risk children; we can remediate their future.”
Moreover, the court’s decision further read:
“The Appropriations Clause creates no bar to judicial enforcement under the circumstances presented here. The funding to the Abbott districts in FY 2012 must be calculated and provided in accordance with the School Funding Reform Act of 2008. Relief is limited to the plaintiff class of children from Abbott districts for whom the court has a historical finding of constitutional violation and for whom the Court has had specific remedial orders in place through Abbott. The motion is granted , and it is ordered that the funding to the Abbott districts in FY 2012 must be calculated and provided in accordance with the SFRA formula. Based on Office of Legislative Services figures, the best estimated cost of this remedy is $500 million.”
Associate Justice Roberto Rivera-Soto, along with Associate Justice Helen Hoens, wrote the dissenting argument in the case. A major part of his argument focused on the need for at least four votes for such a motion. As Rivera-Soto uttered,
“Although the Rules of Court explicitly define how many judges of the Appellate Division are required to grant a motion, the Rules are silent as to the number of Justices needed to grant motion relief. That silence is particularly poignant, as the Rules specifically provide that less than a majority of the Justices — only three — are required to vote affirmatively in order to grant a petition for certification, the vehicle by which the overwhelming majority of appeals arrive at this Court. As a result and particularly in the context of a Court constituted by fewer than its full complement of seven, the requirements for granting a motion before this Court have been the subject of extensive internal discussion and have evolved as a matter of practice. Based on those discussions and evolution, the rule of practice in fact and consistently applied in this Court has been that, to be granted, a motion requires the affirmative vote of four, regardless of the number of Justices voting.”
Rivera-Soto sees 3-2 decisions as temporary solutions while more definitive decisions feature stronger verdicts that warrant permanent rulings.
Hoens backed up Rivera-Soto with:
“Nothing in this record supports any of those essential findings.”
Tuesday’s decision follows up March’s report and ruling by Superior Court Judge Peter Doyne, who concluded that the funding cuts were unconstitutional as it increased the risks for students in poorer districts and that was essentially breaking the state’s constitutional obligations. Many believe that Doyle’s ruling played a role in the state Supreme Court’s decision.
Conservatives along with Christie see the court acting beyond their bounds at times and in this case, see the court making a mistake equating more funding to better results in poor districts.
Chief Justice Stuart Rabner and Associate Justice Virginia Long did not decide on the case choosing to recuse themselves.