The New Jersey Supreme Court has upheld Gov. Corzine's school-aid system, backing his plan to reshape education funding in the state and redirect the flow of billions of dollars in aid.

Yesterday's 5-0 decision effectively throws off a series of court mandates that had required enhanced funding to 31 historically poor areas while tight budgets squeezed the state's 585 other school districts.

Corzine called the ruling "historic," and observers labeled it a possible end to nearly 30 years of Abbott v. Burke school-aid cases. Corzine has argued that his aid plan, an attempt to tackle one of the most divisive issues in New Jersey, sends support to all needy students, including those living outside districts covered by past rulings.

But advocates for the districts that benefited from previous decisions, including Camden, Burlington City, Gloucester City, and Pemberton Township, said schools there faced program and service cuts because they did not get enough support under the new formula, which was first applied in this school year.

At stake in the decision was how the state doles out roughly $8 billion to schools - about one of every four dollars in the state budget. The funding affects education and property taxes in every community.

After years of decisions that dictated large and small education policies, the court's 20th Abbott ruling said the governor and Legislature had made a good-faith effort to develop a fair funding plan and deserved the chance to implement it.

"They should not be locked in a constitutional straitjacket," said the opinion, written by Justice Jaynee LaVecchia.

Peter Verniero, a former state Supreme Court justice and attorney general who argued for the state in earlier Abbott cases, said the ruling showed a deference to the Legislature and governor not seen in the past.

"It may signal a new era of school funding in New Jersey," Verniero said. The court made clear that it wants to see the real results of the formula, he said, but "this is a turning point in the decades-long dispute."

While saying no one can predict the long-run results of Corzine's plan, the court said the record "convincingly demonstrates" that the formula, signed into law in 2008, was designed to provide all districts "adequate resources" to meet educational standards.

The justices, however, did not remove themselves from the equation.

"We trust that the State will not allow our school districts to regress to the former problems that necessitated judicial intervention in the first place," the opinion said.

The court said it expected the state to abide by the law requiring the formula to be revisited and updated every three years. It also said Abbott districts must be fully funded under the plan for three years.

Corzine praised the ruling.

"I am deeply gratified on behalf of the state and all of our children," he said in a statement. The ruling "brings to conclusion decades of conflict and litigation that many thought would never end."

Under the plan, many of the 31 Abbott districts face years of flat state funding. Critics said that meant those schools would have to cut programs as fixed costs grew.

"The formula is a major setback for New Jersey's school children, particularly those in our high-poverty urban, or Abbott, districts," said David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, which advocates for the 31 districts.

Under the system's math, many Abbott districts are deemed to be overspending and therefore not entitled to additional state support. Some may lose funding in future years.

Jose Delgado, a Camden school board member, said he saw dire consequences for districts such as his.

"What happened today is the budgets of places like Camden have been cut, and every year there will be less," he said.

When Corzine took on the formula, he said many communities with similar needs had been left behind as state aid increases flowed almost exclusively to the districts covered by the court.

By 2006, Abbott school systems got 55 percent of state support while educating 23 percent of the student body. Other schools had become home to half the state's "at-risk" students, but lawmakers and governors facing tight budgets largely shut off aid to communities without court protection.

Corzine's plan directs aid to all districts under a formula based on enrollment and their shares of needy students - those who are poor or have limited English skills.

The first two years of his system have largely benefited middle-income districts, such as Pennsauken, that had seen big increases in their share of poor students but had received almost no extra help.

"It's given this district the ability to do a lot of good things it wouldn't have done otherwise," said the district's business administrator, Pasquale Yacovelli.

"We suffer the same ills" as the Abbott districts, he said, "but we didn't get the funds."

Sciarra warned that without a court order to enforce the formula, state budget crunches could limit aid. In the budget proposed right now, for example, schools are capped at 5 percent aid increases to keep costs down, even though some districts were in line for much larger aid bumps.

Sciarra had asked the court to allow Abbott districts to apply for "supplemental" funding outside Corzine's formula. The administration argued that such a provision would have gone against the goal of having a unified system, and the court agreed.

The ruling makes Corzine's formula the first since the 1970s to win court approval for all districts.

The win "could hardly be bigger" for the governor, said Deborah Yaffe, a former Statehouse reporter who wrote a book on the long-running case, Other People's Children: The Battle for Justice and Equality in New Jersey's Schools.

While Sciarra said he would step up efforts to show the harm of the formula, Yaffe predicted it would now be far more difficult to challenge the plan. "It seems to me the court is saying, 'We want this now to be out of our province,' " Yaffe said.

Chief Justice Stuart Rabner and Justice Virginia Long did not participate in the case.

School-Funding Ruling

"Although no prediction is without uncertainty, the record before us convincingly demonstrates that [the formula] is designed to provide school districts in this state, including the Abbott school districts, with adequate resources to provide the necessary educational programs consistent with state standards." - Justice Jaynee LaVecchia in the 5-0 opinion

"By agreeing that the new funding formula is constitutional and that the prior Abbott remedies are no longer necessary, the court has allowed us to focus in a unified and predictable way on meeting our obligation to all of our children while in no way prejudicing those who have benefited from the Abbott rulings in the past." - Gov. Corzine

"The formula is a major setback for New Jersey's schoolchildren, particularly those in our high-poverty urban, or Abbott, districts. Already the formula is causing cutbacks in essential staff, programs, and services." - David Sciarra

executive director of the Education Law Center,

which advocates for the 31 Abbott districtsEndText

Contact staff writer Jonathan Tamari at 609-989-9016 or jtamari@phillynews.com.
Inquirer staff writer Rita Giordano contributed to this article.