ELC Takes on Christie

How mad is the Education Law Center over education spending cuts in NJ? This mad: ELC has joined with Dollars and Sense, the Paterson Education Fund, and the NJ affiliate of the NAACP to send a letter to U.S. Ed Sec. Arne Duncan requesting that he direct Gov. Christie to restore the money. According to The Record, this letter also requests that if Christie refuses to restore the money that the Feds should “delay payment of the next phase of stimulus money.”

ELC’s gripe is not really about the $475 million in seized surplus from school districts, or even about projected cuts – as high as 15% -- in state aid. Its concern regards the hotly contested School Funding Reform Act, approved for a three-year probationary period by the NJ Supreme Court and intended to supplant the Abbott formula. (Here’s a Star-Ledger piece announcing the ruling. Here’s a sample of our coverage.) Back in May 2009 the Supremes ruled that, while indeed NJ was ethically obliged to advance educational equity through funding intended to compensate for our highly segregated and unequal school districts, “SFRA is a constitutionally adequate scheme.” However, warned the Court, after three years this new way of allotting compensatory aid – based not on residence in a poor urban city but on individual needs of the child, regardless of zip code – will be reevaluated. Since then, ELC has been rattling its sabers, preparing for a showdown intended to prove that SFRA doesn’t fulfill its promise. Christie’s cuts in aids and programming like preschools plays directly into ELC’s hands: how better to prove the inadequacy of SFRA than to point to cuts in services?

Here’s a section from a hot-off-the-press ELC release:
Yet Governor Christopher Christie has already signaled he will not follow the SFRA law or the Supreme Court order in his proposed FY2011 State budget, to be released March 16. Instead, the Governor recently announced that he may propose a 15% across-the-board cut in state school aid, a proposal that directly conflicts with the new formula.

So it’s up to the Legislature. Will our elected representatives stand up and do what’s right and equitable for public school children? Will they fund the formula they wanted so badly and now own? Supporters of public education need to let state legislators know that they expect nothing less.
And here’s the problem: the Supreme Court’s ruling, in large part, was justified by the obsolete division of school districts into Abbott and non-Abbott. Once upon a time our poorest children lived in 31 specific cities. Now they’re spread all over the State. Another less scrutinized section of the ruling acknowledged that the Abbott decisions have resulted in a financially unsustainable education tab. Now, a year later, that financial aspect looms larger than before and public sentiment has swayed sharply towards a public education system more frugal than profligate.

ELC’s strategy is odd. (Maybe it’s no coincidence that one of its Trustees, Vince Giordano, is the Exec. Director of NJEA.) Ordering Arne Duncan to withhold stimulus money from NJ is sort of like trying to give Gov. Christie a time-out: an empty threat from a cranky parent. This noble advocate for impoverished kids might find itself more effective a monitor if it acknowledged that the kid’s grown up and collaboration is a better tool than that old-fashioned saber-rattling.

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