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Senator Kip Bateman Senator Kip Bateman (R-16)
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May 31, 2011
Opinion: Court Funding Decision a Supreme Failure

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The following editorial by Senator Christopher “Kip” Bateman (R-16) appeared in the Courier News on May 31, 2011:

In New Jersey’s 31 poorest school districts, the so-called “Abbott” districts, New Jersey spends more per pupil than anywhere in the state and almost anywhere in America- $4 billion in total for less than 25% of the state’s student population.

It all started thirty years ago, when the New Jersey Supreme Court ordered that increased funding for poor districts be used as a remedy for poor graduation rates and student outcomes among disadvantaged kids.

Thirty years later, graduation rates in those districts are abysmal, test scores low, and student achievement unacceptably poor.

It is clear that what we’re doing in those districts isn’t working, and students are no better off for the money we’ve spent. Suburban taxpayers are paying a hefty price to subsidize a failing system in places like Newark, Trenton, and Camden.

The rational course of action when an approach to solving a problem fails would be to try another solution. Yet the New Jersey Supreme Court has ordered more of the same in its latest Abbott v. Burke decision. New Jersey taxpayers will be forced by the Court to spend an additional $500 million on the Abbott districts, and can likely expect the same results we’ve seen for the last 30 years.

Low test scores, poor graduation rates, and children falling through the cracks.

This is both absurd fiscal policy and a tragedy for at-risk students, reaffirming the long held belief of people like me that the Supreme Court is totally out of control and vastly overstepping its authority by ordering school funding decisions.

The state constitution places the authority to appropriate tax dollars squarely with the Legislature- not the Supreme Court, and not the Governor. Yet for 30 years, the Court has ignored this authority by hiding behind another constitutional requirement- that the state provide children a ‘thorough and efficient’ system of free public schools.

But the cruel irony is that the Court’s efforts have not yielded a thorough and efficient education to students in needy districts, nor has much progress been made toward that goal.

Equally cruel is that the vast majority of New Jersey taxpayers are subsidizing failure in the former Abbott districts while their property taxes skyrocket to pay for their own schools that go shortchanged.

The problem in urban districts might once have been inadequate funding, but that is no longer the case. These districts are the best funded in New Jersey, spending well above the state average per pupil. Student achievement will only improve if we reform how dollars are used.

Quality education starts with quality teachers not just in some classrooms, but in every single classroom in the state. Educators should be rewarded for their performance in the on the job, not just their longevity in the system. Tenure must exist to protect teachers from arbitrary termination or discipline, but that tenure must be earned and maintained or taken away based on frequent and fair evaluations.

And more of our education dollars need to be kept in the classroom, particularly in the administration-heavy Abbott districts, by reining in salaries for superintendents and other non-classroom personnel.

If these reforms were implemented, I believe the prospects for children in New Jersey’s poorest communities would be much brighter. So too would the future be better for taxpayers, who could expect better results for the dollars they spend on education and a more equitable distribution of school funds.

But unless and until the Supreme Court gets out of the business of perpetuating failure in disadvantaged school districts, taxpayers will continue to pay too much for too few results. Taxes will increase, kids trapped in failing schools today will be trapped in failing schools tomorrow, and parents of those children will be given false hope year after year that money rather than reform will make things better.

The Court not only has no business dictating education policy, it has proven itself pretty ineffective in making that policy. It is time for a constitutional amendment removing the Supreme Court from this process once and for all, a school funding formula that treats taxpayers fairly, and reforms that put accountability in the classroom.

In so doing, we’d get better outcomes for all New Jersey students than money could ever buy.

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