New Jersey Supreme Court asserts authority over Appropriations

The New Jersey Supreme Court has ruled that the state must spend an additional $500 million in Abbott school districts next year.The state’s 31 Abbott districts are low-income districts designated by the New Jersey Supreme Court in 1976 to receive extra state-provided funding.

In their decision they find that, “The Appropriations Clause creates no bar to judicial enforcement under circumstances presented here.” That is, the Governor must fund the schools according to the court-approved formula.

Governor Christie’s cuts to education provoked the Education Law Center – the plaintiff in the 30-year long Abbott court cases – to sue. And the court has ruled in their favor re-instating the funding cuts.  This decision should provoke a state-wide discussion over the role of the court in shaping education policy in the state over the past four decades. It essentially implies that the legislature and Governor have little control over more than one-third of the budget and the approach the state takes to education policy. Can Governor Christie “ignore the court?” That is hotly debated. With one Rutgers law professor saying such a move would lead to “a constitutional crisis.”

This debate over school funding in New Jersey certainly points to something troubling – the subjective interpretation of the 19th century constitutional phrase, a “thorough and efficient” education by the court. New Jersey’s education policy turns on this phrase and the funding formula sanctioned by the court to fulfill it. Has the policy worked? Much money has been spent in Abbott districts and improvements are scarce.