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New Jersey’s Court System Continues to Drive Education Policy

Yesterday’s dismissal of the Newark ‘LIFO’ case and recent decisions continue to show how the court is a force in education in Garden State

Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson
Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson

For all the attention on the State House in driving education policy, New Jersey’s courts yesterday continued to show their long and storied influence on some of the hottest public school issues.

In the more prominent case, state Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson abruptly dismissed a closely watched lawsuit contesting the state’s infamous teacher seniority rules.

In a clear win for the teachers unions and a blow to the school-reform movement and the Christie administration, Jacobson spoke from the bench, saying the plaintiffs — a half-dozen Newark families, with the help of a national advocacy group — had not proven the “last in, first out” policy had harmed their children.

“I am not disputing the importance of teacher effectiveness in the classroom, but the complaint is completely devoid of facts,” Jacobson said in a lengthy and sternly worded opinion.

The PARCC dispute

Meanwhile, a few miles away, the court’s shadow loomed large in the ongoing dispute over the state’s reliance on PARCC, as protests continued yesterday about the state’s new requirement that students pass the online exam to graduate starting in 2021.

Democratic legislators and advocates held a press conference outside the State Board of Education meeting, pressing the board and the state Department of Education to roll back the requirement.

But inside the building, both board members and the department were deaf to the protests; the state is under legal challenge to those rules as well, and could see the decision made for them.

Board president Mark Biedron stood by the tests but said he could not comment further due to the litigation. A spokesman for the state Department of Education said much the same.

“As a standard policy, we do not comment publicly on pending litigation,” said spokesman David Saenz in an email.

Assessing the courts’ role

The courts’ historical impact on New Jersey school policy is well known. Look no further than the state Supreme Court’s landmark Abbott v. Burke school equity rulings dating back decades that continue to dictate school funding to this day.

But the courts have stepped up their role on individual issues as well — in yesterday’s decision on teacher seniority to a previous challenge on superintendent pay caps to others still pending on charter school expansion.

The case decided yesterday around the LIFO statute was one of the more intriguing, for both its state and national implications.

The suit was brought by a group of Newark families, but was led by a national organization that had brought similar cases in California, Minnesota and New York.

Quality-blind

Calling it a “quality-blind” system, the plaintiffs had maintained that the statute requiring all layoffs be based on seniority alone had deprived their children enrolled in Newark schools of the highest-quality teachers and, in turn, their constitutional rights to a “thorough and efficient” education.

Yesterday, the Trenton courtroom hosted the oral arguments on a motion to dismiss the suit, led by the state’s predominant teachers unions who have long fought for the seniority rules as a protection against political firings.

A side story is that Jacobson, the presiding judge, has become a critical player in all kinds of state policy of late, as her court has also heard hotly contested arguments over public-employee pensions.

Little sympathy

And almost from the start, the judge appeared to have little sympathy for the plaintiffs’ case due to what she said was a fundamental failing: no such layoffs based on seniority had yet to take place in Newark.

“There has been no [reduction in force], dating back to 2014, and there doesn’t appear to be any on the horizon,” Jacobson said.

One of the plaintiffs’ main arguments was that the district had put scores of teachers in what it termed an excess pool to avoid such layoffs, costing close to $8 million a year.

But contesting nearly every point from the bench, Jacobson questioned if even those teachers were all deemed ineffective or whether the plaintiffs had proven how the money could be better spent elsewhere.

“They could have been displaced by school closures, which has nothing to do with effectiveness,” she said at one point during arguments.

In the end, Jacobson left open the possibility that the plaintiffs could return to the court, especially as Newark continues to grapple with deep budget holes that could force layoffs.

The plaintiffs’ lawyers said that was likely, including the possibility of an appeal to the state’s appellate court. They gave no indication that they were giving up the case.

“Our clients are clearly upset by the fact this case isn’t moving forward,” said Kathleen Reilly, the lead attorney.

“I don’t think these parents want us to move on [from this case],” she said. “Clearly the legislature is not addressing this, and clearly there is a constitutional violation, and clearly they are not being heard.”

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