School-Funding Issues Remain at Forefront 40 Years after Landmark Decision

Two key figures agree budget address today may set stage for yet another court ruling on aid for needier Abbott districts

On the eve of Gov. Chris Christie’s budget address, a far smaller crowd than the one expected in the Statehouse today came to Newark last night to hear two key figures involved in the landmark Abbott v. Burke rulings on equitable school funding.

Speaking to about 20 people gathered at Rutgers Law School were Paul Tractenberg, founding director of the Newark-based Education Law Center, which has led the school-funding litigation for more than 40 years, and former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Deborah Poritz, who served 10 years on the state’s top court and wrote two of the Abbott case’s 21 opinions to date.

Both gave detailed history lessons on the case, which started in the 1970s, stemming from a previous school-funding case — Robinson v. Cahill — that ultimately led to New Jersey’s income tax.

Tractenberg argued those first Robinson cases before the high court. Poritz wrote two of the opinions, and acted on several others during her term from 1996 to 2006.

“They weren’t all opinions, but they do take time,” Poritz said. “Abbott was a constant issue for us.”

The most provocative discussion came as they both talked later about where the case was headed next, several times invoking the possibility of a 22nd Abbott decision from the court, depending on Christie’s budget message today.

“It’s still too early to tell,” said Poritz. “A lot will depend on what the governor says in his budget.”

The flashpoint has been over whether Christie will meet the letter of the court’s last Abbott decision, in 2009, which upheld full funding of the state’s School Funding Reform Act for at least the neediest districts, or whether the governor will seek to change some of the extra funding “weights” afforded at-risk students.

The Democratic-led Legislature has balked at those changes so far, although how far it would go to fight them if kept in the state budget is yet to be seen. The ELC has put the Christie administration on notice that it will challenge any changes in that funding formula.

“Will Christie adopt the changed weights, even though the Legislature has rejected them?” Tractenberg asked in what sounded almost like a dare.

“The situation continues what has become almost an unusual alignment of the players of late,” he said. “Now we have in maybe Abbott XXII, the law center saying they are on the side of the Legislature, and only it’s the governor who is the renegade.”

Afterward, Poritz was hesitant to speculate about what a 22nd Abbott decision might look like, but she noted that the court has consistently shown support for children in theAbbott school districts, with little evidence of what a questioner termed “Abbott fatigue.”

This came from a former justice who is a registered Republican and was appointed by former Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, the last Republican elected governor before Christie.

“You could always see in the court an empathy for the children,” Poritz said in an interview after the two-hour session.

“Just the notion that we have these generations after generations of children, and while we spend all this time on the litigation, we keep losing them,” she said. “Whether Abbott fatigue or not, that will keep the court caring.”

“Yes, there are laws and legal principles,” Poritz said. “But there are real lives there, and the court cares about that.”

Still, that doesn’t mean she hasn’t seen some merit in the Christie administration’s approach on putting more emphasis on student achievement measures and less on resources and programs.

“I think there has been a genuine interest there in finding some better ways,” she said. “We’ll see what he has to say on that tomorrow.”