New Jersey's Supreme Court on Tuesday ordered the state to come up with $500 million more to aid certain poor and largely urban school districts next year, finding that the state did not enforce its own law or live up to promises made to the court.
However, the justices, in their highly anticipated decision, declined to restore the full amount of the state's aid shortfall - about $1.6 billion - that could have benefited many districts, including others with low-income children.
The strongly worded, 3-2 ruling requires the additional funds for only the 31 former Abbott districts, which through more than two decades of corrective court orders had come to receive a large share of state aid.
They still do, but the state funding formula, enacted under Gov. Jon S. Corzine, sought to spread money more evenly to other districts with poor children.
The legal challenge to Gov. Christie's aid cuts, started by the Education Law Center in 2010, identified 205 underfunded districts with low-income students.
In the majority opinion written by Justice Jaynee LaVecchia, the court said the state reneged on its deal to fully fund the state aid formula - the justices' condition for deeming it constitutional.
"Like anyone else, the state is not free to walk away from judicial orders enforcing constitutional obligations," LaVecchia wrote.
Christie, who had said he might defy the court if ordered to come up with more money, left compliance with the order to the Legislature, but not before criticizing the court, which he said "should not dictate policy."
State Democratic legislators responded by accusing Christie of failing low-income children. Schools lost about $820 million in state aid for the current school year to help make up for a nearly $11 billion budget deficit.
"Democrats devised a constitutional funding formula that abolished the practice of basing school funding by zip codes," said Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester). "By ignoring the law, Gov. Christie has single-handedly re-created the Abbotts and brought the courts back into New Jersey education."
David Sciarra, director of the Education Law Center, called on the governor and legislators to work together.
"This isn't the point for anyone to walk away and say, 'I'm done,' " he said.
Other reactions were mixed.
Camden, one of four South Jersey former Abbotts, along with Burlington City, Gloucester City, and Pemberton Township, can use the money, said school board member Susan Dunbar-Bey.
"I'm hoping we can continue what we were starting," Dunbar-Bey said. Camden lost $15 million in aid for the current school year, forcing the district to cut programs.
Richard Bozza, head of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators, said he was surprised that the decision was limited to the Abbotts.
New Jersey School Boards Association president Raymond Wiss said his group supported the funding formula because it sought to help many districts suffering with high taxes and inadequate funding.
"Today's court decision does not resolve these matters," he said.
If there was a lack of consensus on the decision, the same could be said of the court itself.
LaVecchia, in her opinion, wrote that the court's jurisdiction in this case was limited to the Abbotts, for which the court in its various decisions found "constitutional deprivation."
Justice Barry Albin sided with LaVecchia and Edwin Stern, he wrote, so that at least the Abbott students could get some relief rather than no districts getting any relief. However, he said that "acquiescing to the violation of the constitutional rights of tens of thousands of similarly situated students" in other underfunded districts "is not a just solution."
The dissenting justices, Helen Hoens and Roberto Rivera-Soto, did not agree that there was sufficient evidence to warrant the court's finding or enough "yes" votes. Chief Justice Stuart Rabin and Justice Virginia Long did not join in the decision.
Rivera-Soto, in his dissent, suggested his fellow jurists overstepped their bounds "in an unseemly power grab."