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New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's $1 billion in cuts to school aid last year left the state unable to meet its obligation to provide all children with a "thorough and efficient" education, a judge ruled Tuesday.
In looking at the issue for the state Supreme Court, Superior Court Judge Peter Doyne concluded that Republican governor's cuts hit high-risk districts the hardest. The high court will now consider responses to Doyne's report and whether to do anything about it. Each side is required to respond by April 14.
Doyne, a Bergen County judge, was appointed by the Supreme Court to help sort out whether the Christie was within his constitutional rights in making the cuts. His report is the latest chapter in a decades-long legal saga about a high-income state's obligations to children and schools in its poorest cities.
In a series of decisions over the last two decades in a case known as Abbott v. Burke, the Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that the state needed to do more to improve schools in the poor districts.
As a result of the Abbott decisions, school districts in places like Camden, Newark and Asbury Park are among those with the highest costs per student, though their students' test scores lag far behind those in the suburbs.
The high court's last ruling in the case came in 2009, when it found that a new school funding formula designed by the administration of former Gov. Jon Corzine, a Democrat, was allowable -- but only if it was fully funded.
In Corzine's last budget, schools did not get all the increases called for by the formula. And last year, Christie's first in office, the governor cut aid to schools by about $1 billion to help fill an $11 billion state budget gap.
The Education Law Center, a Newark-based group that represents children in poor cities, took the state back to court over the cuts, arguing that even a one-time cut could put the state's public education system back on the path to budget disparity.
Doyne found that, despite the state's best efforts, the cuts fell more heavily upon high-risk districts.
His report found that 36 percent of districts were not adequately funded in the fiscal year that ends in June and that those districts accounted for 72 percent of "at-risk" students. Doyne wrote that "it is clear the state has failed to carry its burden."
In order to fully fund the approved formula, the state would have needed to come up with an additional $1.6 billion in the fiscal year that ends in June.
"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. "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."
Although Doyne's decision is not binding, it is important. In 2009, Doyne was tasked with recommending whether the Supreme Court should approve the Corzine administration's school funding formula. Doyne recommended that it be approved and ultimately the court followed the recommendation.
Christie believes that his cuts to school aid were done equitably and should be upheld.
He thinks broader changes to education -- such as eliminating lifetime tenure for teachers and making it easier for children in struggling schools to transfer to better-performing public or private schools -- are needed to solve education problems that an infusion of state money has not been able to fix.
His spokesman, Michael Drewniak, said Tuesday that legal mandates over the years had contributed to the current fiscal crisis without improving education and should be reconsidered.
"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.
Requests for comment from the Education Law Center were not immediately returned Tuesday.