Abbott v. Burke in Suburbia

The latest Abbott challenge asserts that Christie's cuts in state aid shortchanged both suburban schools and inner-city districts

From the heart of New Jersey suburbia, Montgomery’s public schools would seem an unlikely Exhibit A in the epic Abbott v. Burke school equity case.

After all, the case that has dominated New Jersey’s state education policy and funding for more than 20 years has largely been about the shortchanging of inner-city districts like Newark, Camden and Trenton.

But as fact-finding hearings on the latest Abbott challenge start today in a Hackensack courtroom, the case this time could hinge as much on the financial state of suburban districts as on urban ones.

And leading the way, Montgomery superintendent Earl Kim is slated to be among the first to testify, and that after a five-hour deposition last week.

“I’m not sure what to expect,” Kim said yesterday. “I’ve never had a deposition before, never been a witness.”

The challenge before the state Supreme Court is that Gov. Chris Christie’s and the legislature’s cuts of more $1 billion in state aid last year were in violation of the constitutional guarantee of a “through and efficient” education.

Fully Funded

The court in 2009 had found the state’s funding formula under former Gov. Jon Corzine was constitutional, but only if fully funded. The Christie administration has argued that the cuts were necessary to withstand the economic crisis and a thorough and efficient education was still maintained.

As he prepared yesterday for his testimony, Kim said it’s not all that disputable in his mind. The state’s cut of $3.5 million to Montgomery schools led to the loss of world language teachers in his elementary schools, larger class sizes in all grades, and cuts in remedial and support programs needed to help students at risk.

“If you can’t provide the instruction that helps a child progress toward meeting the core curriculum standards, then it’s not a thorough and efficient education,” Kim said.

With the district forced to cut required world language instruction entirely from its earliest grade, for instance, “we’re clearly not making progress toward the standards,” Kim said.

Of course, it’s not that simple in a case as complicated as Abbott v. Burke, and the hearings starting today — and expecting to run every day except Sunday for several weeks — speak to the varied points of view.

State Superior Court Judge Peter Doyne is presiding over the hearings, and is slated to report his findings back to the state Supreme Court in March.

Suburban and Urban Witnesses

The long-time plaintiffs in the case, led by the Education Law Center in Newark, have listed as witnesses more than a dozen local educators. In addition to Kim, they include suburban superintendents and principals from Piscataway, Woodbridge, and Edison and urban ones from Orange, Perth Amboy, Bridgton and Jersey City, to name a few.

The state’s case largely centers on its argument that the cuts were unavoidable in the face of a multibillion state budget deficit, and even so, students’ constitutional rights were not violated given the generous local, state and federal funding still afforded to New Jersey’s schools.

Its witnesses will include top state education and budget officials, including state Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf, and a nationally known researcher on school finance and quality, Eric Hanushek of the Hoover Institute.