Rural New Jersey Districts Revive Funding Litigation

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Rural New Jersey Districts Revive Funding Litigation

On December 11, a judge from the Superior Court of New Jersey Law Division – Mercer County heard oral arguments in the long-pending challenge to New Jersey’s statewide school funding system by  16 poor, rural New Jersey school districts.

The rural school districts and a coalition of parents had originally brought suit challenging New Jersey’s school funding formula as unconstitutional almost two decades ago.   In a 2006 ruling, the NJ State Board of Education had found that the education and funding in these districts was so inadequate it violated the district students’ right to a “thorough and efficient” education under the New Jersey Constitution. In a 2008 ruling, an appeals court upheld the State Board’s ruling and remanded to the State Education Commissioner to determine whether the newly enacted weighted student funding formula – the School Funding Reform Act (SFRA) – provided the resources necessary to remedy the constitutional violation. In 2009, the State Education Commissioner ruled that the newly-enacted School Reform Act of 2008 (“SFRA”) would address the districts’ needs and enable the districts to improve educational opportunities for all students.

In 2010-11, however, Governor Christie cut over $1 billion in state funding from the SFRA formula, effectively wiping out the increases received by the districts. Since 2012, the Christie Administration has not restored the cut, nor provided any of the increases in K-12 and preschool funding required by the formula.

As the poor, urban Abbott v. Burke districts did in 2010, the plaintiff-districts in Bacon v. New Jersey Department of Education, are now challenging the Christie administration’s state aid cuts.  Under SFRA, the state was to provide: (i) sufficient funding for K-12 staff, programs and services; (ii) universal high-quality preschool; and (iii) facilities improvements. In a complaint filed in September of this year [link], the Bacon districts alleged that the state completely failed to provide the aid required under SFRA during each of the 2011-12, 2012-2013 and 2013-14 academic years. According to the complaint, in the current school year alone, the districts are being underfunded by $18.4 in K-12 funding and approximately 1,900 three- and four-year olds are being denied access to full-day, high quality preschool as a result of the state’s failure to fully implement the SFRA preschool mandates.

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