N.J. Supreme Court upholds right to public education

The New Jersey Supreme Court delivered a sharp setback to Gov. Chris Christie's determination to destroy New Jersey's public schools. The court by a 3 to 2 vote on May 24 voted to uphold the New Jersey state constitution's provision which guarantees a "thorough and efficient" education to all New Jersey children. The court ruled that the Christie administration must restore $500 million to the state's 31 poorest school districts.

The governor had cut out $1.3 billion dollars from the state education budget. The cuts are racist to the core. The state's 31 poorest school districts are in the main largely Black and Latino urban communities. They include the six largest cities - Newark, Jersey City, Paterson, Elizabeth, Trenton and Camden.

New Jersey public schools are funded by property taxes and some state grants. With this method, wealthier communities are able to provide more money per child and more programs for child development and newer school buildings. In the working class communities, children go to older schools, have fewer programs and no supplies and suffer the most severe layoffs of teachers and staff.

The court's decision continues a 136-year struggle by public education advocates to have a "thorough and efficient" (known here as T&E) education for all the state's children.

In 1875 the New Jersey legislature amended the state constitution, making it the state's responsibility to provide a "thorough and efficient system of free public schools." Since that time elected officials have tried to minimize and reduce the scope of T&E, but  education advocates and courts have held fast. There have been many state Supreme Court decisions over the years upholding T&E and active implementation of it. For example in 1990, the court said that the "record proves what all suspect, that if the children of poorer districts went to school today in richer ones, educationally they would be a lot better off." The court further said: "Everyone's future is at stake and not just the poor's."

In 2009 the court upheld a new funding formula proposed by Gov. Jon Corzine, a Democrat, in 2007 extending additional funding to all school districts which have disadvantaged students. This approach differs sharply from the expressed intent of Republican Chris Christie to destroy public education. During his 2009 election campaign, Christie referred to the New Jersey Education Association as the "National Extortion Association." Since taking office in 2010, he has undermined public education in favor of charter schools and vouchers. His funding cuts have forced teacher layoffs across the state.

While  progressive forces hailed the court's latest decision, they pointed out that it falls short in that it provides relief only to the  31 poorest districts. It does not provide relief for 171 other needy school districts in New Jersey.

Following the ruling, among the early options Gov. Christie was reported to be considering was to defy the court decision, which would have placed this former prosecutor in contempt of court.

In a bald-faced attempt to evade carrying out the court decision, Christie said the responsibility for implementation belongs with the state legislature. Senate President Stephen Sweeney said in response to Christie's evasion: "When there is good news to be had, he takes credit for it. When there is a difficult, tough situation, he says the legislature will handle it. That's fine, we'll deal with it."

Sweeney, a Democrat, also pointed to the need to find money to fund the other 171 left-out districts. Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, also a Democrat, expressed determination to find funding for all affected districts even if it means raising taxes on the rich. In addition to the potential funds from restoring the lapsed millionaire's tax,  the state just became the beneficiary of a $953 million tax windfall. This money came from  increased income tax revenues because of the growing economic recovery, a large portion of which came from banks and Wall Street firms and their overpaid executives. The governor has no excuse not to fully fund public education as needed.

Barbara Keshishian, president of the New Jersey Education Association, called on "Governor Christie and the legislature to craft a budget that complies with the court's ruling and the law, and which respects the educational needs of all New Jersey children."  She also urged them "to fund the education of students in all districts moving forward so that the state does not waste any more time or money defending the indefensible.  Our children's education is too important to be left to the whims of politics."

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