Demystifying today’s Abbott Decision

Posted on May 24, 2011



First, let’s identify the players:

  1. New Jersey Legislature & Governor, or THE STATE
  2. Children attending Abbott school districts and their legal representation, or THE PLAINTIFFS
  3. THE COURT (NJ Supreme Court)
  4. Other school districts and the children they serve

Now, let’s not go too far back in history, and instead account for the last few years which really define where we are at today, and how this decision makes sense: http://www.judiciary.state.nj.us/opinions/supreme/M129309AbbottvBurke.pdf

Until a few years ago, the State of New Jersey was operating its school funding formula under a series of court orders specifically intended to ensure that children attending school districts known as Abbott districts received sufficient resources to provide them with a constitutionally adequate education (history here: http://edlawcenter.org/ELCPublic/AbbottvBurke/AbbottHistory.htm) .  The original Abbott v. Burke lawsuit was brought on behalf of PLAINTIFF children who resided in specific school districts.

A few years ago (2008-09), the New Jersey Legislature- THE STATE – adopted the School Funding Reform Act of 2008 in a legislative, pro-active attempt to move into a new era in New Jersey school funding, an era not driven by judicial mandates but rather by a legislatively adopted formula. An era where a unified state school finance formula would drive “adequate” (their words, not mine) funding to local public school districts, whether those districts were among those that had previously sued the state over funding or not.

PLAINTIFFS CHALLENGED that formula, saying it would not provide them with adequate resources and should not be considered constitutional.

THE STATE argued that the formula, SFRA, was essentially THE OPERATIONAL DEFINITION OF THEIR CONSTITUTIONAL MANDATE.  That SFRA, by its design and according to its planned implementation was necessarily constitutional.

THE COURT cut THE STATE a break, and indicated that while it wasn’t entirely sure that SFRA really was the operational definition of the constitutional mandate, it was a reasonable attempt and should be allowed to move forward. That is, the COURT was anything but activist, giving THE STATE an opportunity to move forward with their new school finance plan, but holding the STATE to their promise on a 3 year time frame. THE STATE WON, and THE PLAINTIFFS LOST.

Then, all hell breaks loose in the economy and THE STATE (which is now a different set of individuals/Governor/legislators, but that’s not relevant to the legal question at hand) pulls about $1.7 billion out of SFRA, relative to where it would have been if implemented as promised. Again, THE STATE had argued that SFRA implemented as promised was effectively THE OPERATIONAL DEFINITION OF THEIR CONSTITUTIONAL MANDATE.

So today, THE COURT had a really narrow, arguably boring question to answer. They didn’t have to answer the big question of whether SFRA in its current form meets the constitutional standard or what that constitutional standard really meant. They had decided in 2009 that SFRA as planned would meet the constitutional standard, and had accepted THE STATE’s argument to that effect.  Today, THE COURT merely had to decide if SFRA, in its current form – less $1.7 billion – was still implemented as planned? That’s a pretty simple NO.  Right or wrong in any broader sense, whether SFRA is a good formula or a sucky one, the legal question before this court was simply whether SFRA was implemented as planned. And it wasn’t.

Judicial activism? Let’s review. First a definition. Judicial activism is when the judicial branch applies the constitution to invalidate statutes passed by the legislature. While having negative connotations, judicial activism is clearly appropriate under some circumstances. Legislatures do adopt policies that violate individual rights and checks and balances are critical. I guess you could say that this decision invalidates recent budgetary decisions. BUT, and this is a big BUT, all that the court has done here is to uphold the state school finance formula that THE STATE asked them to uphold a few years ago.

The court is merely upholding a legislative action that it already upheld a few years ago (while granting significant deference to the legislature on how that formula would work).  That’s pretty mundane, if you ask me.

Are Abbott districts and Ed Law Center the big winners here? It’s really important to understand here that SFRA was considered to be a reasonable operational definition of the state constitutional obligation because THE PLAINTIFFS LOST in 2009. ELC and Abbotts did not want SFRA and felt that it didn’t provide sufficient additional resources to meet the needs of children in Abbott districts. They lost in 2009. THE STATE won, and SFRA was accepted. So, this time around, ELC and Abbotts had to suck it up and accept that SFRA was the standard, and argue that at least SFRA should be funded as planned and as accepted by the court – BECAUSE IT ALREADY WAS. This new decision today merely affirms the PLAINTIFF’s previous loss.

What about that whole bit about THE STATE only having to reinstate the cuts to Abbott districts – THE PLAINTIFFS? Perhaps this is a technicality, but children in Abbott districts are the original plaintiffs and the ones who continue to be represented in this case – THE PLAINTIFFS. So, it is technically correct in a legal sense that THE STATE would be obligated only to close those funding gaps.

BUT… and this is another BIG BUT… this does leave the door wide open to the possibility that all of those other districts whose current funding levels fall “below adequacy” under SFRA can bring separate lawsuits against the state to have their cuts restored as well (if THE  STATE were to choose to only restore cuts to Abbott districts). After all, THE STATE has said and THE COURT has accepted that SFRA as planned was constitutional. THE COURT has now said that funding below that level is a constitutional violation, seemingly making for a pretty straightforward argument for non-Abbotts below their target funding levels – adequacy funding – under SFRA.  Let the games begin!

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Posted in: Jersey