In a widely expected move, the New Jersey supreme court today ordered Governor Christie and the legislature to restore $500 million in funding to the state’s “Abbott” districts.
At a press conference, Christie said he disagreed with the ruling — calling it the product of a “failed” educational policy and representative of “everything that’s wrong with Trenton” — but affirmed that he was constitutionally obligated to comply with it. He called on the Democratically controlled state legislature to send him a budget that restored the $500 million without raising taxes. It has until June 30 to do so.
The “Abbott” districts are themselves a creature of a series of state supreme court rulings in the 80s and 90s that ordered the state to fund dozens of poor and “special needs” districts at levels similar to the wealthiest districts in the state. Educational spending in New Jersey is funded primarily by municipal property taxes and directed by local and regional school boards, but the Abbott rulings charged Trenton with paying to establish parity.
But after decades and billions in tax dollars spent, Abbott districts remain, by and large, absolute failures. Christie’s argument has been that the problem is not money but a perverse and corrupt tenure system and a lack of teacher accountability. The court here demured, though it notably did not go so far as to restore the full $1.6 billion in funding requested by the Education Law Center — a Newark-based outfit that filed both the original Abbott suit and the current one.
The court’s ruled 3-2 in favor of the Education Law Center, after two justices recused themselves from the proceedings (including the chief justice, who worked for the Democratic Corzine administration). Christie has zeroed in on the court and created controversy there by denying tenure to liberal John Wallace Jr., the first time a governor has failed to reappoint a sitting justice in the state’s history.
Incidentally, the $500 million figure is on par with what the state treasury is saying they expect in surplus tax revenue this year, over and above previous estimates. Christie had hoped to use the surplus to give New Jerseyans property tax relief and shore up the woefully underfunded state pension system.