Judge Wallace and School Funding

Here in Jersey all jural eyes are on the looming question of whether Gov. Christie will grant tenure to Justice John E. Wallace Jr., whose term is up in April. Republicans are pressuring the Governor to choose a more reliably conservative jurist to prove his judical restraint bona fides while Democrats like Senator Ray Lesniak warn, "If Justice Wallace were not reappointed, anyone to be appointed in his place would stand a snowball's chance in hell to be appointed by the Senate Judiciary Committee."

One big issue the Supreme Court will face, as soon as this year, is a review of former Gov. Corzine’s School Funding Reform Act. The Education Law Center, which lost a suit against the DOE challenging SFRA last year, is accumulating an impressive pile of press releases and reports all pointing to the inadequacy of our school funding formula to equalize funding between NJ’s poor urban districts and wealthy suburban ones. Recent state aid cuts and the lack of expansion of free public preschool (promised under SFRA to poor children regardless of place of residence) is more fodder for ELC to prove that the Justices erred last time around.

Here’s the thing: it doesn’t really matter. The Abbott rulings, and the court battle over SFRA, are so last century. NJ’s zeitgeist regarding school funding has changed dramatically over the last year. Who would have thought that the NJEA’s leadership would so badly misjudge public sentiment and win Gov. Christie’s MVP Award for most helpful character assassin of the teaching industry? No one thinks that we don’t pay our teachers enough (well, hardly anyone). No one thinks that we don’t pay enough for public education. That old innumerate equation, money = academic achievement, is in the dust heap, swept there in part through NJ’s noble, failed experiment to create educational justice through financial compensation, and in part through the momentum of the reform movement, stylized via Race To The Top.

So Gov. Christie doesn’t need to die on this hill. He’s still going to get to remake the State Supreme Court; Judge Wallace faces mandatory retirement in two years and three other justices will either retire or be up for reappointment. School funding needs dramatic reinvention in the Garden State, but we’re in no danger of returning to the hoary Abbott days, especially after all the reports of corruption and waste (as if the State’s own financial neediness weren’t enough). Actually, we need an Abbott program for NJ. Any rich states out there willing to compensate us (maybe California too) for failing to fund ourselves adequately?

Seriously, the kids stuck in chronically failing schools in poor urban centers haven’t been rescued by decades of extraordinary funding. Their best chance is access to successful schools, which has nothing to do with the fate of the Abbott rulings or the School Funding Reform Act. That's where Gov. Christie needs to put his political capital, not in a pointless fight over a well-regarded Justice.

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