N.J. Supreme Court weighs $1B school funding cuts

The issue of funding cuts to New Jersey schools and its impact on the poorest districts was back before the state Supreme Court Wednesday.

David Sciarra of the Education Law Center said last year’s billion-dollar reduction in aid to schools violates the state’s constitutional obligations to ensure all students get a thorough and efficient education.

“You have to make it clear that this is a constitutional right,” he said. “This is not a statutory right to services. This is a constitutional right.”

But Assistant Attorney General Nancy Kaplen said the state did not have the money and had other needs to consider when reducing school aid.

“I don’t think that this court can say ‘Fund education at this level and don’t worry whether or not you have a balanced budget.’ There’s another constitution provision that has to be met,” she said.

Associate Justice Barry Albin questioned whether the court should consider economic realities in deciding school funding.

“Our nation and our state is in a very deep recession and the political branches of government are attempting to react to them,” said Albin. “Should that not be a factor considered by the court?”

School funding in New Jersey has been the subject of legal action for decades. And some advocacy groups are concerned that the matter is back before the state Supreme Court.

Irene Sterling, president of the Paterson Education Fund, a nonprofit support group, said Wednesday the cuts took a tremendous toll. She said they resulted in larger class sizes, the loss of librarians and music and art teachers, and fewer resources for special-education students.

She said more money is needed to help Paterson schools increase a 60 percent graduation rate.

“What we’re going to end up with if we don’t graduate our kids is more kids in jail. So you either spend more money on jails and the justice system or you’re going to put it in education,” she said. “I’d rather put it in education.”

The president of the New Jersey NAACP said he’s disappointed the state reduced education aid last year and wants it to be more of a priority.

There’s no indication when the court rule on the case. Some of the justices suggested that a special master be appointed to review the effect of the funding cuts before they make a decision.

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