Originally published in The American Prospect on February 2, 2017.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s post-election tribulations continue to pile up. In September, Christie’s administration petitioned the New Jersey Supreme Court to vacate a 2011 ruling that found his prior education funding cuts unconstitutional. The petition also requested authority to bypass teachers’ collective bargaining agreements and tenure laws. The outspoken Republican, a long-time foe of organized labor, claims that these employment rules, not school funding levels, squander already scarce dollars and harm students in low-income districts.
But Tuesday, New Jersey’s high court denied the Christie administration’s attempts to link tenure and collective bargaining to school funding. Long regarded as a national leader in progressive school finance, the Garden State’s funding formula is the result of three decades of state Supreme Court litigation: The Abbott v. Burkecases determined that in order for the state to provide a “thorough and efficient” education to every student, New Jersey must send additional funds to 31 disadvantaged school districts across the state. Christie argues that these monies have been wasted, pointing to the districts’ low test scores and graduation rates.
In his ruling, the chief justice, Stuart Rabner, noted that the Abbott cases did not cover tenure and collective bargaining and declined to “exercise original jurisdiction” on those areas. He also emphasized that the court was not “opin[ing] on the merits of the issues or arguments” when it came to the teacher employment rules.
David Sciarra, the lead Abbott counsel and executive director of the Education Law Center, a New Jersey legal advocacy group, praised the court’s decision. “Issues related to collective bargaining and teacher layoffs were never in the Abbott cases, which has been singularly focused on ensuring adequate funding and resources for students in New Jersey’s poorest schools,” he said in a statement.
The state teachers union has argued that Christie’s efforts were politically motivated from the start, since the administration filed its legal petition just as the high-profile Bridgegate trials were getting started. “The court’s thorough rejection of Governor Christie’s frivolous but costly legal action demonstrates that his political Hail Mary lacked any solid legal basis,” New Jersey Education Association president Wendell Steinhauer said in a statement. “It was simply another taxpayer-funded Christie boondoggle, designed to divert attention from his many political woes.”
NJEA’s Steinhauer also commended the court for declining to rule on collective bargaining agreements and tenure. Calling Christie’s efforts an “attempted power grab” the union president said, “The court was wise to realize, as the Legislature long has, that no governor or commissioner of education should be given that amount of unchecked authority.”
New academic studies also challenge Christie’s contention that it is wasteful to direct supplemental funding to poor school districts. A 2016 National Bureau of Economic Research paper compared student test scores in 26 states that altered their school funding formulas since 1990, usually in response to court-orders like Abbott, with 23 states that had not. Researchers found that funding reforms that increased dollars sent to low-income school districts improved achievement and outcomes for those students. Another recent study found that poor children in districts subject to funding court-orders attended school longer, and earned higher wages as adults, compared to poor students in districts that were not under court-order.
The state Supreme Court ruling marks a setback to Christie’s education agenda. The governor shocked the nation this past summer when he announced his intention to upend his state’s school funding formula—declaring “no child in this state is worth more state aid than another.” Rather than direct more money to the poor, urban districts that have high concentrations of low-income students, Christie proposed distributing the exact same amount of funding to every school district in New Jersey. Only that, he insisted, would be fair. If implemented, Christie’s plan would have had crippling impacts on certain communities. NJ Advance Media found that the governor’s proposal would reduce state aid to Camden, one of the poorest cities in the United States, by 78 percent, and 37 other districts would see funding reductions exceeding 50 percent.
But, Democratic lawmakers, who control both the General Assembly and the Senate, plan to negotiate a new school funding formula and have already expressed opposition to Christie’s proposals.
Meanwhile, challenges to teacher employment statutes in New Jersey are not over. In November, six Newark parents filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the state’s “last in, first out” law, which requires teacher layoffs to be made exclusively on the basis of seniority. The plaintiffs say the current law violates students’ right to an education by ignoring individual teachers’ records when determining which teachers to let go.
The Newark parents’ lawsuit mirrors a California case, Vergara v. California, which argued that teacher tenure, seniority, and other employment rules violated the state’s constitutional responsibility to provide students with an equal education. The California plaintiffs won the that case in 2014. But in a unanimous 2016 decision, the California Court of Appeals struck down that ruling and the state Supreme Court declined to take up case. Similar lawsuits challenging teacher job protections have also been filed in New York and Minnesota.