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Abbott Fact Finding: Christie Cuts Hurt At-Risk Kids

Judge Doyne says as much as $1.6 billion needed to fully fund Abbott v. Burke formula.

Credit: Robert Sciarrino/The Star Ledger
State Superior Court Judge Peter Doyne

The opening line of a state judge’s latest opinion in the Abbott v. Burke school equity case may have said it all.

"And so, once again, unto the breach," started Superior Court Judge Peter Doyne, paraphrasing William Shakespeare’s “Henry the Fifth."

From there, Doyne launched into a 96-page opinion released yesterday. His fact-finding hearings found Gov. Chris Christie’s $1 billion in cuts to public schools this year left schools falling well short of the state constitution’s guarantee of a "thorough and efficient" education system.

Doyne said as much as $1.6 billion more would be needed to fully fund the formula.

But in a case that is now dating back close to 40 years, the true drama will come in what happens next with the state Supreme Court, which requested Doyne’s fact-finding report as part of the latest challenge under the epic case. The court could next demand the administration restore the cuts -- or even the full funding -- or something short of that, prospects that set off their own commentary yesterday.

Yet while the politicians and lawyers argue constitutional law and school funding, a raucous hearing last night in Newark over school reform plans also spotlighted the challenges ahead in ultimately bringing improvement to the urban schools -- with or without the added money.

A Narrow Task

The tenor of Doyne’s written opinion had been largely expected, since this is the same judge in the last round of hearings two years ago who backed the state’s School Funding Reform Act (SFRA), which he says is being underfunded.

Doyne stressed that his task was a narrow one, to judge whether conditions set under the funding formula in 2009 were still being met and current funds "can permit our school districts to provide a thorough and efficient education to the children of our State."

"Given the proofs adduced as heretofore related," Doyne wrote, "the answer to this limited inquiry can only be 'no.'"

Most scathing for the administration, Doyne wrote that the cuts hit hardest at the poor and at-risk students that the Abbott v. Burke case was intended to protect.

The administration had argued this year's cuts were evenly divided, with every district losing an amount equal to no more than 5 percent of its total budgets. But Doyne sided with the plaintiffs that the per-pupil amounts lost were as much as 50 percent higher for students in at-risk districts.

He also cited more than 200 districts now spending less than the formula deemed as "adequate," with three quarters of the state’s low-income and disadvantaged students residing in those districts.

Doyne was careful is saying that money alone was not enough to raise the achievement levels of students. He praised one key witness for the state, Eric Alan Hanushek of the Hoover Institute, in making that argument nationally.

And Doyne wrote one stinging line that for all the money spent through the Abbott remedies, "our ‘at-risk’ children are moving further from proficiency." He said the task for helping those children must rest with the state Department of Education and the districts in spending the money more wisely and effectively.

"That said, the court cannot abandon or waiver from its constitutional commitment," he wrote.

Next Steps

Yet what the court will do next was subject of considerable conjecture in the aftermath of the release. It has set an April 21 deadline for responses from both sides. The Education Law Center (ELC), arguing for the plaintiffs, said it will seek full funding of SFRA, although it didn’t say in what timeframe.

"The Special Master's [Doyne'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," read an ELC statement.

Christie’s spokesman, Michael Drewniak, issued his own statement that repeated the administration’s argument that money has been wasted through the Abbott remedies and added that it worsened the state’s budget crisis.

"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 claims to be helping with its rulings."

Democrats didn’t jump to praise the opinion, at least not publicly, but some said it gave them further ammunition in their arguments against the cuts in the first place and the harm they did to schools.

"While we are still far from the resolution of this case, and I anxiously await the Supreme Court's final words, what is clear is that the governor's cavalier disregard for public education and our constitutional funding formula is now getting the scrutiny it deserves," said state Sen. Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex), the Senate majority leader.

Live from Newark

Still, the opinion’s release was an intriguing juxtaposition to what happened a few hours later in the monthly meeting of the Newark’s school advisory board.

Before a standing room only crowd in Barringer High School’s auditorium -- with a few hundred more outside -- scores of speakers stood to mostly criticize the details in the Christie administration’s plans for the state-run district. Christie has made Newark the focus of his reform plans, bringing in new leadership for the district and pushing especially for the expansion of charter schools there, including within district buildings.

It led to a tense evening, with the Newark Teachers Union (NTU) bringing out its members and charter schools bringing out their parents and plenty of shouting in between. But rarely was money even mentioned in that context, and the Abbott decisions -- let alone yesterday’s opinion -- barely at all.

One activist was asked would the same arguments take place if all the Abbott remedies were in place and SFRA was fully funded?

"Probably not, probably not," said Wilhemina Holder, a long-time parent advocate. "People are being forced to look for alternatives, and that’s what we have here."

Still, she said the battle lines have shifted in urban education over the last 10 or 20 years, with admittedly less talk of money for its own sake.

“When my kids were in school, we certainly didn’t have enough money, there wasn’t advanced placement courses and teachers," she said of her children, now grown.

"Now nobody is talking about money, it’s the options of what you do with it," she said.

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