Once again, a judge has stepped in and dramatically changed the fiscal landscape in the state of New Jersey. Superior Court Judge Peter Doyne was appointed as a "special master" by the New Jersey Supreme Court to offer his analysis of last year’s nearly $1 billion reduction in state aid to local schools -- particularly in the state’s most needy districts.
Judge Doyne made it crystal clear that the $820 million school aid cut proposed by Governor Chris Christie and approved by the Democratic legislature last June severely hurt, in fact crippled, the state’s ability to meet its Constitutional mandate to provide a "thorough and efficient" education to all public school children.
According to Judge Doyne: "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… Despite the state’s best efforts, the reductions fell more heavily upon our high-risk districts and the children educated within those districts."
What Judge Doyne is saying -- whose opinion matters greatly as the state Supreme Court must now take up this issue -- is that it doesn’t really matter what the state’s fiscal situation is when it comes to providing what he perceives (as well as what state law apparently dictates) is an appropriate level of state funding to public schools. While the Supreme Court will ultimately decide this issue, this is a powerful and scary concept. As someone who was educated in the Newark Public Schools, but ultimately transferred to a parochial school in the 1970's (because I felt I had virtually no chance of achieving a "thorough and efficient" education in the public schools) I appreciate and understand our need to help every urban child get the education they deserve -- be it mandated in the Constitution or not.
However, as the Supreme Court considers this complex and controversial issue, it boggles my mind to think that if the state is virtually broke with less and less revenue coming in, that this dire circumstance would be irrelevant to how a group of judges will decide this question. Judge Doyne’s opinion will have a great impact on the Supreme Court’s ultimate ruling, but what must also be considered as this case moves forward is that you cannot have a serious discussion about providing more state money to urban schools without considering two major questions.
First, how much difference does money make when it comes to providing a quality education for a child in a so-called Abbott school district? Second, assuming money is a major factor and the court does say more must be spent in struggling school districts, where is that money supposed to come from? I know this is not the responsibility or the purview of the Supreme Court, but to ignore that question is lunacy. Even if we reinstate the so-called Millionaire’s Tax (which I support) it wouldn’t bring in nearly enough money to fund urban schools to the degree the court is likely to conclude or that Judge Doyne argues.
Are we saying that income taxes should be raised on everyone regardless of what they earn in order to provide more state money to public schools? That’s a possibility. But how can you do that while more and more middle- and working-class New Jerseyans are either struggling to hold onto their jobs as well as their homes, or have no job at all and are hanging on by a thread. Last time I checked, the old adage "you can’t get blood from a stone" is still true.
The other option is to cut state services and programs even more, outside of the field of education. We are talking closing state parks, shutting down the DMV on additional days and that’s just the beginning. If the Supreme Court ultimately decides that in order to fund urban schools to the degree they feel is necessary based on a Constitutional mandate, we may have to bankrupt the state and gut virtually every other important state initiative, then we have to ask ourselves: "Is that what we really want?"
Simply put, in theory -- in the abstract -- in a utopian society, it would be great to provide more state money to urban schools. But that is not the world we are living in. It would be even better if judges took a closer look at how effective those dollars have been spent over the past 40 years. What were the results? Has student performance improved as more money has been spent? And is the answer simply sending even more money to school districts while so many education reform initiatives can't even get to first base?
Finally, does money matter when it comes to education? Of course. But I suspect not nearly to the degree that Judge Doyne and other justices believe. And even if it did, as I said, where the heck are we going to get that money? The Supreme Court won't tackle that one, but hopefully our so-called leaders in the Statehouse will. If not, there is a constitutional and governmental stalemate about to take place, the likes of which New Jersey has never seen. What do you think? Write to me at sadubato@aol.