While Judge Peter Doyne’s ruling on the constitutionality of Gov. Christie’s cuts to school aid may not be Shakespeare, it’s rich with the political subtexts that infiltrate even so narrow a decision. Doyne begins his ruling with a line from "King Henry V", when the King exhorts his soldiers to “disguise fair nature with hard-favour'd rage” as they defend England and “go once more unto the breach."
Here’s the local coverage: Wall St. Journal, Star-Ledger, NJ Spotlight, The Record. Most of the ledes gloss over the nuances and go for the hit: Christie lost and Education Law Center won. (Spotlight notes that the concurrent events of the ruling’s release and the 1,000 people arguing in Newark over whether (public) charter schools can use (public) school space shows that the education battles in Abbott districts aren’t so much about money anymore.( Is this endless court battle obsolete?)
Anyway, here’s what struck me:
- Multiple (at least 5) references to the fact that over the decades of Abbott decisions, there’s been a major demographic shift among NJ’s poor families. While most of NJ’s high-needs students once lived in the 31 cities designated as Abbotts, now these children are all over the state and ELC is only representing a portion of them. From the ruling:
"[O]f the 1,366,271 students in the State – 282,417, or 20.67 percent, are students in former Abbott districts, leaving the remainder 79.33% of students residing in non-Abbott districts unrepresented. This is as troubling now as it was in the prior remand."
- There are constant reminders from Justice Doyne that his marching orders are limited to “whether current levels of funding for FY11, through the SFRA [School Funding Reform Act] formula, can permit our school districts to provide a thorough and efficient education to the children of our State. "Given the proofs adduced as heretofore related, the answer to this limited inquiry can only be 'no.'” Yet his wise awareness of the complexities he’s been ordered to ignore trickle into his ruling. Example: he notes that the cuts in aid has rendered some districts incapable of meeting the Core Content Curriculum Standards, and then adds,
"Is there a concern teachers have failed to heed the request to freeze their salaries in an effort to assist their students, certainly. Are there concerns the various collective bargaining agreements curtail flexibility and available teaching time, certainly. The directive to this court, though, is clear and the superintendents’ testimony, collectively, did not allow this court to find the State had met its burden, at least with regard to these witnesses."
- Judge Doyne voices his frustration with the State’s defense of the school aid cuts, which appear to have centered on the state of the economy and research showing that increasing education funding doesn’t directly correlate with increased student achievement. Here he remarks that he allowed the State to make economic arguments in spite of its irrelevance to his remand, merely because it would be faster than arguing over motions, and he was pressed for time. After all, his orders included a deadline of March 31st:
"Finding the Supreme Court reposed solely to itself the issue of economic realities and whether these realities should impact upon the required levels of SFRA funding, and further finding such issues were not before this court, the evidence was permitted solely to avoid further delays as the Court was obviously concerned about the FY 12 budget in establishing its remand time limit, and subsequent briefing schedule. Rather than have motions for a further remand or augmentation of the record, this court decided to permit the evidence subject to the Court’s limitations, only for purposes of completeness of record and not for the Master’s consideration."
- The State’s star witness, Dr. Eric Hanushek, a scholar of education economics, flamed out:
"Although the Master was impressed with Hanushek’s thoughtful, if thought provoking analysis, it was problematic for this hearing for several reasons. First, the focus of Hanushek’s testimony was predominantly national, rather than focusing upon New Jersey. Second, there was a dearth of any meaningful review of the obstacles; e.g. collective bargaining agreements, union contracts, tenure and statutory provisions, may have on removal of the five to eight percent of our least capable teachers. Hanushek acknowledged he had not specifically studied any such agreements in New Jersey or the applicable statutory provisions."
Judge Doyne points to the irony of these circumstances. Not two years ago, during Gov. Corzine’s administration (though Corzine’s name doesn’t come up in the ruling) the State fought hard for a new way of distributing education aid. Instead of the vast amount of money poured into the 31 Abbott districts, it argued that our poor kids are spread out all over the map and it would be more equitable to use the spanking-new School Funding Reform Act.
- And –- here it gets really interesting – Judge Doyne notes that the State’s argument that cuts to education funding are irrelevant to student achievement “runs in direct contravention of the accepted principles of the SFRA formula. To suggest, even if correctly, there is an insufficient correlation between expenditures and performance defies the underlying pillar of SFRA, and is beyond the purview of this Master.”
ELC fought hard against SFRA’s implementation (after all, they represent just the kids in the original 31 districts) but the Court ruled for the State, with the understanding that it would revisit the efficacy of SFRA within three years. Now the State is arguing that the hard-won SFRA needs to be ignored and ELC is fighting for its strict implementation. Crazy, right?
- New Jersey lacks any “uniform standard” to determine if a district is meeting the Core Content Curriculum Standards. Sure, there’s the statewide assessments used for language arts and math, but we lack any tools to measure student proficiency in other areas. For Judge Doyne, this is "problematic.”
- While this hearing was restricted to the limited question of whether or not the State budget met SFRA, the State ignored those constraints and presented irrelevant evidence. However, Judge Doyne “in no way suggest[s] the same arguments would not be proper before the Supreme Court or, even possibly, in another forum.” He means the Legislature.
- Another irony: the State Budget could have met the requirements of SFRA by using the “adequacy formula” – the amount per pupil that is considered appropriate to provide a thorough and efficient education system – and cutting aid to every district above that number. This would have hurt poor districts even more
- Finally, a "poignant" quote from Parsippany Superintendent Robert Copeland, who testified for ELC:
"I think that there are going to be teachers and students who are going to succeed no matter the hurdle. I don't know if I can give you the kids . . . there are some kids who . . . were born on third base. They walk in and they're able to do everything they're supposed to do. I have a bunch of kids having a hard time getting out of the dugout. I'm worried about the kids who it doesn't come easy for and what we're not able to do for them. And I don't know if I can categorize or codify who they are at this point."
Labels: Abbott, Christie, DOE, Education Law Center, school funding