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Fine Print: Abbott Briefs

With the latest filings in the Abbott v. Burke school equity case, both plaintiffs and defendants are ready for oral arguments.

Summary: The Christie administration and the Education Law Center (ELC) yesterday filed to the state Supreme Court their latest legal briefs in the Abbott v. Burke school equity case, in preparation for April 20 oral arguments before the court.

What they mean: The briefs lay out the opposing arguments in the umpteenth -- actually more than that -- round in this epic case, with the ELC in the driver’s seat and specifically calling for full funding of the state’s school finance law.

A little context: The briefs are in response to a fact-finding report from a lower court judge who found that Gov. Chris Christie’s and the legislature’s $1 billion in cuts to schools this year left them unable to provide a "through and efficient" education for all children, as the state constitution requires. The court now has that report before it as it decides what, if any, remedy to order.

Key line from the plaintiffs: "Most fundamentally, this relief is essential for the Court to fulfill its promise to remain 'committed to its role in enforcing the constitutional rights of children of this State, should the formula prove ineffective or the required funding not be forthcoming.'"

Key line from the defendants: Written by former Justice Peter Verniero, brought in by the Christie administration to argue this round, the state’s response continues to argue that New Jersey's budget crunch necessitates revisiting how schools are funded. He also argues it is for the executive and legislative branches to decide, not the judiciary. "The State urges the court to consider the full weight of the State’s fiscal crisis. In so doing, the court should defer to the elected branches and their careful balancing of multiple constitutional mandates."

What this all means in dollars: The ELC doesn’t put a dollar figure on its proposed remedy, but it specifically asks for the state to provide the money going forward, not for the current school year. And it lays out a three-year timeframe. The gap between current state aid and what is required under the funding act is about $1.6 billion, so by one measure, it could roughly be another $500 million each year.

The governor’s version: Christie spoke in New York City yesterday about his reform agenda and chided the court’s history of ordering more funding for what he has called "failing" schools, with few results to show for it. "If $25 billion a year hasn’t fixed the problem, what’s another $1.6 billion going to do," he said.

Hold onto your hats: The court clearly wants to rule sooner than later, and speak to the fiscal 2012 state budget now under debate in the legislature. It has twice moved up the schedule for the case to be heard, with oral arguments now scheduled for April 20. That doesn’t guarantee a decision in time for the next budget, but it sure makes it likely.

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