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5-31-12 Education and Related Issues in the News
NJ Spotlight.com - Debate Over NJ’s Education Budget Quietly Focuses on Funding Formula…Budget analyses by OLS say state will be paying less for inner-city children, a change critics contend requires Legislative approval

Star Ledger - Department of Education plans to release report cards for all N.J. schools

The Record - Governor Christie sees hopeful sign for confirmation of his second state Supreme Court nominee

Philadelphia Inquirer-Politics - Christie offers another high court nominee

NJ Spotlight.com - Debate Over NJ’s Education Budget Quietly Focuses on Funding Formula…Budget analyses by OLS say state will

be paying less for inner-city children, a change critics contend requires Legislative approval

By John Mooney, May 31, 2012 in Education

While the public discussion about New Jersey’s budget has largely turned on whose proposed tax cut is better and whose revenue estimate more accurate, quieter debate has also surfaced over the distribution of the largest piece of that budget: school funding.

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Christie has called for a $213 million increase in school funding, to nearly $9 billion in direct state aid -- by far the biggest piece of the budget. But while some have said the increase should be more and fully fund the state’s school finance law, much of the discussion has been around particular details in how the administration plans to distribute the money it has.

A main point of contention has been the administration’s unilateral move to tweak the existing funding formula under the School Funding Reform Act (SFRA) to provide less extra money for the students of extra needs, such as low-income children or those with limited English skills.

All part of a complex formula approved by the state Supreme Court that aims to ensure specific dollar amounts for every student, the formula requires that students from low-income families in high-poverty schools, for instance, be funded at 157 percent the rate as students who are not low income. The administration has proposed reducing that to 146 percent.

All combined, the changes could have a real dollar impact, too, with the Legislature’s non-partisan Office of Legislative Services saying in two budget analyses that all the changes combined could reduce the amounts spent in some cases by as much as $1,000 per child. One OLS study said the changes amounted to $300 million less overall from what districts would receive under SFRA as it now exists.

Critics have maintained the changes are illegal without the Legislature’s approval. Yesterday, state Assemblyman Troy Singleton (D-Camden), a member of the Assembly’s budget committee, said those changes continued to concern the majority.

“Members of the majority are very much concerned about where the school funding debate is going and the governor’s changes to the formula,” Singleton said at a forum hosted by the Garden State Coalition of Schools, a suburban schools group.

“There are certainly some who represent large urban populations who feel the government has taken a step back in funding to those communities, and that is something that leadership in the Assembly is very concerned about,” he said.

Still, Singleton said he was unsure how much the Democrats would succeed in modifying the way money is distributed as the budget is finalized.

The chairman of the Senate’s budget committee, Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen), said the same last week in discussing the details. But he too hedged on how much would be resolved in the next month for the next year’s budget.

Sarlo instead pointed to a promised report from the state’s acting education commissioner, Chris Cerf, that would codify how much the state planned to change in the formula in the long term. The so-called “adequacy report,” required under the SFRA, is long overdue, and Cerf has said it would be completed by the end of this calendar year.

“We’re waiting for that report,” Sarlo said. “That’s the key.”

When asked whether the Democrats would put up a fight in this year’s budget deliberations, however, the budget chairman said he doubted it. “Next year,” Sarlo said.

Meanwhile, others are demanding the Legislature not wait. The Education Law Center last week sent a letter to both houses of the Legislature contending the budget as proposed was illegal and violated the court’s approval of the SFRA as part of the Abbott v. Burke litigation.

It specifically cited the change to SFRA that required Legislature’s approval through the adequacy report.

"We're confident Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver -- because they respect the rule of law and rulings of our Supreme Court -- will reject the Christie Administration's illegal school aid budget," said David Sciarra, ELC’s director, in a statement.


Star Ledger - Department of Education plans to release report cards for all N.J. schools

Published: Thursday, May 31, 2012, 6:00 AM  By Jessica Calefati/The Star-LedgerThe Star-Ledger
The state Department of Education today plans to release report cards for every school in the state's nearly 600 districts, a spokesman for the department said.

The report cards give parents and teachers a thorough picture of a school's academic and fiscal performance, giving them a tool to compare schools. The report cards include information on state test score achievement, per pupil spending and graduation rates among other statistics.

Last year's school report cards revealed that per pupil spending had increased slightly between the 08-09 and 09-10 school years.

This year's report cards will reflect the nearly $1 million Gov. Chris Christie cut from New Jersey public schools in the 10-11 school year. Because a new method for calculating graduation rates took effect this year, the school report cards will also show decreased graduation rates across the state.

Check back at NJ.com, the online home of The Star-Ledger, later today to view report cards for schools in your neighborhood and across the state.

The Record - Governor Christie sees hopeful sign for confirmation of his second state Supreme Court nominee


Governor Christie said no senators have personally warned him that his second Supreme Court nominee is doomed, a “hopeful sign” the governor said on the eve of Thursday’s confirmation hearing.

The silence on the fate of Bruce Harris before the Senate Judiciary Committee differed from the forecast Democrats gave Christie before his first court pick, Phillip Kwon, was rejected in March.

Several Democrats, however, have openly questioned Harris’ qualifications and cast doubt on his odds of clearing the committee.

“Certainly, I haven’t been given any heads up one way or the other,” Christie said at a news conference Wednesday “I take that as a hopeful sign that there are actually some folks on that committee left who actually want to listen. And if they do, I think they will give Bruce Harris the ability to go and be voted on the floor of the state Senate. And that’s all we ask for.”

Christie asked Democrats to remain objective and “put aside politics for five minutes” so that they can “come to the conclusion that he merits their vote.”

Harris, a finance attorney and mayor of Chatham Borough, sat through much of Kwon’s six-hour hearing in mid-March, witnessing the first rejection of a Supreme Court nominee in modern state history.

Some committee members predict that Harris’ interview will be shorter and focus on his qualifications, which have been the main point of criticism among Democrats.

Sen. Kevin O’Toole, R-Cedar Grove, expected an easy confirmation if Democrats judged Harris by his performance.

“If it’s a political showdown it’s a different story,” he said.

Christie said he would “not necessarily” pull Harris’ nomination if he got early reports from committee members that rejection was inevitable. The governor gave Kown the option to proceed with his hearing after being told that lawmakers would reject him.

Kwon was rejected in a 7-6 vote with all but one Democrat on the committee voting against him. Democrats raised concerns that Kwon, an independent, was a Republican because he was registered as one in New York before moving to New Jersey.

Now Democrats are worried that approving Harris, a Republican, could lead to a GOP supermajority and upset the long-term partisan balance of the court.

“It is of paramount importance to maintain balance on the court,” Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Nicholas Scutari, D-Union, said.

Scutari has said that “he wouldn’t bet” on Harris’s confirmation.

If confirmed, Harris would replace Justice Virginia Long, a Democrat who retired in March. That would make Harris the court’s third Republican, leaving only two Democrats and an Independent on the bench.

But also sitting on the court, as a temporary replacement, is Dorothea Wefing, an appellate court judge who was assigned by Chief Justice Stewart Rabner to serve as an interim replacement for former Associate Justice John Wallace, who left the court in May 2010 after Christie refused to re-nominate him for lifetime tenure. Wefing is due to retire in October.

Rabner could then assign another appellate court judge to replace Wefing. And if Rabner hews to tradition by picking the most senior Appellate court judge, then the job would go to Ariel Rodriguez, a Republican. That would mean the court would have four Republicans, an Independent, and two Democrats.

Yet many Democrats view the independent, Jaynee LaVecchia, as a Republican since she worked for two former Republican governors and once gave contributions to Republican candidates. To Democrats, that would give Christie a five member Republican majority.

Christie said the portrayal of LaVecchia as a Republican in disguise was just a ploy by Democrats to prevent him from getting four Republican justices on the court – a governor’s right, he added, to keep the tradition of partisan balance.

“That’s just them [Democrats] making stuff up ….” He said. “It’s ridiculous.”

Record Columnist Charles Stile contributed to this article. Email: patberg@northjersey.com

Philadelphia Inquirer-Politics - Christie offers another high court nominee

TRENTON - Two months after Democrats rejected Gov. Christie's nominee for one of two vacant seats on the State Supreme Court - a historically unprecedented move that marked a major setback for his administration - the Republican is sending another nominee to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday.

And the votes aren't there to confirm this one, either, Democratic sources are saying.

If Christie can't muscle through the confirmation of Bruce Harris - a Yale Law graduate, an African American, and a gay Republican who plans to recuse himself on the issue of same-sex marriage - then what?

"This is all unprecedented," said Robert Williams, a Rutgers-Camden law professor who is an expert on the Supreme Court.

With a pair of seats open, the normally seven-member court would be short-staffed, and experts say its decisions may not carry the same weight in setting legal precedent.

The chief justice, according to the state constitution, may elevate the most senior appellate court judge to the high court for a period of time, or even for one case. Though only five are needed for a quorum, justices regularly recuse themselves on cases due to conflicts of interest, which requires an additional jurist to be called in.

Appellate Court Judge Dorothea O'C. Wefing is temporarily filling one vacancy now. But in October, a month after the court returns to session, she faces the mandatory retirement age of 70.

After Wefing, next in line to sit on the court is Judge Ariel Rodriguez, reportedly a Republican. If the chief justice chooses to temporarily fill the second seat, it would go to Judge Mary Catherine Cuff, who a source says is a Democrat.

Christie could make the political calculation that going with six justices, including Rodriguez as a short-term fill-in, might be better than nominating a Democrat as a permanent justice, which Democratic legislators say he is obligated to do to ensure balance on the bench.

The makeup of the court is crucial to the success of Christie's agenda, especially as cases may soon be heard on issues including affordable-housing mandates and education spending in poor districts.

It is gay marriage, however, that has dominated discussion in recent days. Christie recently vetoed a bill that would have legalized gay marriage, a cause that Harris has championed in the past. In 2009, he wrote a letter to his state senator advocating for passage of a bill that would have allowed same-sex marriage. At the time, Harris was a councilman in Chatham, Morris County. He is now mayor.

Due to that proactive role while serving as a public official, Harris has said he would recuse himself if a case on the constitutionality of same-sex marriage came before him as a Supreme Court justice, Christie explained Wednesday at a Statehouse news conference. Such a case is now pending in the courts.

"It makes no sense whatsoever," responded Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D., Union), a judiciary committee member who plans to vote against Harris.

"Advocating for an issue is immaterial to [deciding] the constitutionality of the issue. It just proves to me that Mr. Harris would not be an independent thinker on the Supreme Court. . . . I wouldn't be voting for Bruce Harris on the Supreme Court - I'd be voting for Chris Christie."

Christie rejected that notion, and said recusals were common. "I think these are folks who are just looking for an excuse to vote against a Republican on the Supreme Court," he said.

Much has been made about the unwritten rules regarding political balance on the court, with governors making nominations that ensure there are no more than four members of one party on the bench.

Because of arguments over Supreme Court Justice Jaynee LaVecchia's political leanings, however, Democrats and Christie don't even agree on how many Republicans are on the court. So Christie rejects the protocol that he must appoint a Democrat.

Williams, the law professor, said the unusual politicizing of the high court began in 2010, when Christie broke precedent and decided not to grant tenure to Justice John Wallace, a Democrat and the only African American on the bench.

In March, the Democrat-controlled Senate judiciary committee also broke precedent - by not confirming Phillip Kwon, a high-ranking official at the state Attorney General's Office who was Christie's nominee for the first of the open seats. Though now registered as an independent, he had been a registered Republican when he lived in New York.

It was the first time that either action had occurred since the current state constitution was adopted 65 years ago.

"What we have now is a whole new political context surrounding the court," Williams said.

Beyond his political leanings, Harris is likely to be questioned Thursday by Democrats about his lack of courtroom experience. As a finance attorney, Harris handles complex business transactions and has never tried a case.

"I think when you hear Bruce Harris tomorrow, objective people are going to be incredibly impressed," Christie said Wednesday. "This is a thoughtful, experienced, soft-spoken, interesting man who I think will bring an incredible perspective to the Supreme Court."

Harris has a sense of what he's in for. In March, while Senate Judiciary Committee members grilled Kwon about his political affiliations and a federal civil case involving his mother's liquor store, Harris sat in the front row. Harris is in a long-term relationship and was accompanied by his partner.

After nine hours of testimony, the committee voted not to move Kwon's nomination to the full Senate, with just one Democrat joining Republicans in objecting.

Asked Wednesday whether he would consider appointing a Democrat - or maybe no one - to the vacant seats in the event that Harris were rejected, Christie said he wouldn't get into hypotheticals.

But if Democrats insist he must appoint a member of their party to preserve balance, he said, then "we're headed for a stalemate."


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