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GOP looks at N.J. school strategy

The Senate caucus got an e-mail discussing possible curtailment of the Supreme Court.

TRENTON - New Jersey Senate Republicans have been asked to consider taking a unified position on public education, including removing the state Supreme Court from school-funding decisions and granting the Legislature the power to determine what it means to provide a "thorough and efficient" education in public schools.

A Republican strategy memo laid out Friday in an e-mail from Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. to his caucus asked fellow GOP senators for feedback on a three-pronged education plan after Tuesday's Supreme Court order requiring the state to invest $500 million more in 31 poor school districts.

The plan includes supporting a constitutional amendment that would end judicial involvement in school-funding decisions and give the state wiggle room to reduce funding in lean budget years. The resolution, sponsored by Sen. Steven Oroho (R., Sussex) and cosponsored by the other 15 members of the GOP caucus, was introduced in January but hasn't gained traction. It would require voter approval.

The e-mail "was meant as a framework for discussion within the caucus in light of the latest Supreme Court decision," said Adam Bauer, spokesman for the Senate Republicans. "It's a proposed plan for discussion. Nothing's formalized, nothing's finalized."

Kean did not return messages for comment Saturday or Sunday.

Many Republicans, including Gov. Christie, have disagreed with Supreme Court rulings that have repeatedly ordered more funding for poor districts, known as Abbotts, in cities lacking a sufficient tax base to fully fund public education. The Abbott districts include Camden, Pemberton Township, Gloucester City, and Burlington City.

The court recently determined that Christie's education cuts were too deep to provide poor children with the "thorough and efficient" education the state constitution requires. The order scrambled the state budget-making process weeks before a balanced budget must be adopted by June 30 and left some clamoring for the Legislature to assume a stiffer posture against what they called an activist court.

"I have a plan for the Republicans: Keep the funding formula intact," said Senate Democratic Leader Barbara Buono, an advocate for public-education funding. "And we need to build in models of successful school districts. The great equalizer is having a quality educational system that is accessible for all."

Besides pushing the Oroho amendment, Kean's approach includes advocating a change in the funding formula so it allocates more money to suburban districts without shortchanging city schools, and embracing Christie's education agenda, including ending traditional teacher tenure, tying teacher evaluations to student achievement, and establishing merit pay.

Kean suggests a push to make the Abbott districts more accountable for the money they receive, but he doesn't specify where funding would come from for 174 other districts that the court says also are inadequately funded.

Kean cited recent polling data to build his case to the caucus, saying solid majorities of women, independents, and Republican voters oppose education cuts in suburban and poor districts.

"Cuts to education are deeply unpopular, even among Republicans; beating up on Abbotts isn't wildly popular with Republicans, let alone anyone else; everyone understands that money isn't the best way to improve education, but they're not willing to give it up; and reform proposals put forward by Gov. Christie and GOP senators dealing with tenure, merit pay, and salary caps are stone-cold winners," Kean wrote.

Kean's memo didn't suggest possible support for other proposed constitutional amendments sponsored by Republicans in the Senate or Assembly that would allow certain court orders to be defied and give the Legislature final authority over public education.

It also didn't mention an amendment proposed by Sen. Michael Doherty (R., Warren) that would do away with extra funding for poor children and provide identical per-student school aid statewide.