Accelify Blog

Battle Over N.J. School Funding Heating Up (NJ)

April 5, 2011

When New Jersey leaders sought to rewrite the state constitution in 1873, the hot topic was how to fund the public schools.

The state Senate settled a year later on a constitutional requirement that New Jersey maintain a “thorough and efficient system of education.” Some 137 years later, state officials are still arguing about school funding and that phrase.

This week, lawyers representing low-income children in 31 school districts and attorneys for Gov. Chris Christie’s administration will file final briefs in the latest battle over how to distribute money to schools.

The state Supreme Court is widely expected to order New Jersey to spend more money on local schools, especially low- and moderate-income districts, after a special master last month said that Christie’s budget cuts had violated the constitution.

The question is: How much?

Depending on what remedy the court orders, it could cost $400 million to upward of $2 billion in the budget that begins in July. Most observers expect the court to go slowly, but they also say the court is hard to predict.

If the court order is strong enough, it would upset the upcoming state budget and set up a showdown with Christie, who has fought with the court and earlier this year called its long-running school decisi ons “failed legal theory” because, he said, they equated money with better education.

Christie, a Republican, appears ready for the fight. In some of his strongest comments to date, Christie said in Hammonton last Tuesday that the school funding decisions were a reason why justices needed to be replaced with others who would not be so activist.

“We do not any longer need a Supreme Court where those people who are not elected by anyone and are not elected to be making laws are making laws from the bench,” Christie said. “They’re directing how money is supposed to be spent by the people you elect to make those decisions, the Legislature and the governor.”

Christie noted that the percentage of money going to 31 low-income school districts once selected by the Supreme Court to receive special funding has risen to nearly 59 percent of all state aid given to school districts. Meanwhile, enrollment in those districts has dropped.

If the court were to order significantly more money, Christie said, the state just might cut out all reimbursements to hospitals for poor patients without insurance, or eliminate state aid to municipalities. It was the first time Christie or anyone in his administration identified what might happen should the court require significantly more spending.

Paul Tractenberg, a Rutgers University professor and founder of the nonprofit group that has sued the state for more money on behalf of students in low-income school districts, said he thinks the court will offer an alternative: either fully fund the 31 school districts that long had received massive funding under previous court orders, or fully fund the entire school formula across the state.

If the decision is the latter, Tractenberg suggested, New Jersey then could, among other options, reinstate the millionaire’s income tax surcharge and pass a 10-cents-a-gallon rise in the gasoline tax.

“Look, I understand the downside. (The gas tax) is a broader-based tax and it hits people of limited means,” Tractenberg said. “There are a series of choices, none of them easy or cost-free, but the constitutional rights of our schoolchildren ought to take primacy, and that’s what the court has done for 40 years, essentially.”

A millionaire’s tax surcharge, if implemented, is estimated to bring in $600 million to $750 million, though Republicans say that with income taxes already high on top earners, it would force those people to move out of state or relocate businesses. A 10-cent increase in the gasoline tax would bring in an additional $500 million. Transportation advocates, however, already are eyeing that tax to pay for i