TRENTON The New Jersey Supreme Court on Thursday found Gov. Jon S. Corzine’s new school funding formula to be a “constitutionally adequate scheme,” signaling an end to the long-running case which for years required extra money for the state’s poorest districts.
In a unanimous ruling, the justices said the state no longer has to provide supplemental funding to the 31 so-called Abbott districts Ð which include Salem, Camden, Gloucester City and Bridgeton.
The state, however, must continue to fund schools to the level required by the new formula, which seeks to treat all districts the same. The formula will also be subject to review after three years, Justice Jaynee LaVecchia wrote in the 138-page ruling for the five participating justices.
The decision is a victory for the Corzine administration, which has held that school funding should be “based on children’s needs, not children’s ZIP codes.”
It also has an impact statewide, since funding for the so-called Abbotts has been largely subsidized by the state. Additionally, after years of flat funding, the new formula implemented this school year provided many suburban and other districts with additional money, since it bases funding partially on the number of poor students in a district, nearly half of whom attend non-Abbotts.
Corzine called the ruling “historic” and said it brings to a conclusion decades of conflict and litigation that many thought would never end.
“By agreeing that the new funding formula is constitutional and that the prior Abbott remedies are no longer necessary, the court has allowed us to focus in a unified and predictable way on meeting our obligation to all of our children while in no way prejudicing those who have benefited from the Abbott rulings in the past,” Corzine said.
The ruling is the 20th decision in the Abbott v. Burke case, filed in 1981, although the original school funding case Ð Robinson v. Cahill, which alleged the state’s funding method discriminated against urban districts Ð began in 1970.
In the Abbott rulings issued over the years, the court ordered that poor districts be funded to the same level as wealthy ones, in order to provide children in impoverished areas the same opportunity for a “thorough and efficient” education as guaranteed by the New Jersey Constitution. That funding method, long considered controversial since a significant portion of residents’ tax bills go toward funding local schools, was expected to stand until the state came up with a constitutional formula.
Corzine proposed the School Funding Reform Act (SFRA), which has been in place since July 2008, seeking to fund all districts in the same manner. The formula based funding on enrollment and then added money for each low-income student, or those receiving free or reduced lunch, each student with limited English proficiency and each student receiving special education.
Advocates for Abbott students have argued that the districts will be unable to maintain important programs under the new formula, which for the 2009-2010 school year would allocate $8 billion in direct aid to kindergarten-through-12th-grade districts statewide.
David Sciarra, who argued in court on behalf of the Abbott children, said the formula has already caused significant cutbacks in staff and programs.
“We are deeply concerned that the SFRA formula will quickly return New Jersey to the unequal school system we had in the past, and undo a decade of measurable educational improvements for our poorest children,” Sciarra, executive director of the Newark-based Education Law Center, said following the ruling.
Sciarra had hoped that the state would continue the supplemental funding without a time limit. There was also a chance that the court would accept a suggestion by a court-appointed special master, who found that the formula was constitutional, but said the state should continue extra funding three years.
But the justices rejected both, saying that Abbotts are expected to get $603 million in extra federal funding over the next two years and that the state has also budgeted emergency aid that is available for districts in need.
“The state has constructed a fair and equitable means designed to fund the costs of a thorough and efficient education,” Justice LaVecchia wrote. “The Legislature and Executive have made considerable efforts to confront the difficult questions of how to address the education needs of at-risk pupils, no matter where those children attend school.”
Senate Majority Leader Stephen Sweeney, who represents both Abbott and non-Abbott districts in Salem, Gloucester and Cumberland counties, hailed the decision, saying it was an enormous step forward for the state.
“The funding formula works and it’s fair,” said Sweeney, D-3, of West Deptford, who helped rally Senate votes for passage of the school funding legislation last year. “The money’s supposed to follow the child.”
The court said the constitutionality of the funding formula is based on the condition that the state continues providing the necessary amount of money required under the law.
Sciarra, of the Education Law Center, said he was “heartened” by that stipulation. He said his group “will take every action possible to hold the governor and Legislature accountable.”
Chief Justice Stuart Rabner, the state’s former attorney general, and Justice Virginia Long did not participate in the case.