Another Administration, Another Abbott v. Burke Battle

John Mooney | July 20, 2010
The Education Law Center takes its epic legal battle to the Christie camp, arguing that school budget cuts are unconstitutional

New Jersey’s Supreme Court has yet to say when or even if it will hear the motion, but the next round of the epic Abbott v. Burke school equity case is already being fought on paper in legal briefs filed with the court.

For Gov. Chris Christie’s administration, the argument is simple: State government is in financial crisis and the budget cuts to schools were fair yet unavoidable.

“During likely the greatest budgetary crisis this state has known under its current constitution, the state simply cannot continue to spend as it has in the past,” read the brief filed earlier this month by the state attorney general’s office.

The plaintiffs argue the high court has been clear in demanding adequate funding for all students, and the state’s defense is hardly an excuse for cuts that they said worsen the disparities.

“The time has come for the court to act,” reads the latest brief from the Education Law Center, the Newark-based advocacy group that first brought the Abbott case.

The law center in June filed the latest motion, adding to more than three decades of court battle on how best fund education in the state.

The ELC claims Christie’s and the Legislature’s $1.1 billion in cuts to public schools in the coming year violated the court’s latest decision in 2009, which for the first time found the state’s funding formula to be constitutional but also required the state to match its fiscal promises.

The court has yet to say whether or when it would hear the new motion, likely moving any potential oral arguments and resulting decision into the fall, at the earliest.

The stakes are high, with the state estimating the cost of fully complying with the school funding formula to the ELC’s satisfaction would be another $1.8 billion.

The state in its filing implored the court to stay out of it this time, saying the budget’s deep cuts were done fairly and equitably and distribution of funds should nevertheless rest with the executive and legislative branch.

Christie and the legislature’s limited the historic cuts in state aid to no more than 5 percent of any district’s overall budget, a move that took larger sums out of urban schools but proportionately hit harder at suburban districts, including 60 districts that saw virtually all their aid eliminated.

The law center in its most recent brief highlights that the state does not deny it has underfunded the School Funding Reform Act (SFRA) backed by the court two years ago, and instead “relies on several excuses for its non-compliance.”

“The state cannot mask the stark and uncontested reality that the over $1 billion reduction in such aid below the levels provided by the SFRA in 2009-10 departs significantly from the SFRA formula,” it reads.