The latest Supreme Court ruling on educational funding presented some interesting options for Chris Christie. He could have defied the court order as overstepping its bounds, as many of his supporters hoped he would. In the end, he took a less controversial way out. Maybe.
From a public opinion point of view, the decision will go largely unnoticed. Part of the reason is that most New Jerseyans pay little attention to the court. Part of it is that, over the past 20 years, we have become used to the idea that certain (i.e. Abbott) school districts receive extra state aid.
My own research into public attitudes toward school funding in New Jersey indicates that the public thinks there is an element of fairness in giving extra resources to those that need it most. Furthermore, urban school districts are only slightly more likely to be perceived as wasteful and inefficient than suburban districts in the state. In other words, all districts are equally wasteful.
The overriding sense of fairness made it difficult, although not impossible, for Governor Christie to defy the court’s ruling. He could have focused on Justice Barry Albin’s concurring, sort of, position. The school funding formula authorized by the Supreme Court just two years ago recognizes that students in need are spread throughout the state and that providing full funding only to the 31 “Abbott” districts actually disadvantages a class of students who do not happen to live in those districts.
The governor could have also taken issue, as Justice Helen Hoens did, with the idea that the Special Master appointed by the court had obtained enough data to determine that less advantaged students “are becoming demonstrably less proficient” purely because of budget cuts. [A critique which, by the way, appeals to this observer’s research inclinations.]
Ultimately, Christie would have had to argue that the court was taking education funding away from suburban districts and undermining the promise of future property tax relief. All of that, however, would have been a heavy lift in the court of public opinion.
He would have had to do it without appearing to attack the court. Why? Most New Jerseyans have a basically positive view of the court. It’s unlike opinion of the legislature, where most of the public concurs with Christie’s “do-nothing” moniker.
The governor made the strategic decision to let the ruling stand. He will have to mollify angered members of his Republican base who hoped he would defy the ruling. But on the whole, it will fly under the radar for most New Jerseyans.
The question is what Christie does next. At his press conference, he made a very conscious effort not to demonize the court. At the same time, he threw the hard work of funding the extra aid on the legislature’s shoulders.
Clearly, the governor and his staff have thought through this scenario. My sense is that they are looking at an end game that involves a re-calibration of the “adequacy” level in the school funding formula which will be based on how well schools perform under the current budget cuts.
He is also tacitly challenging the legislature to send him a millionaire’s tax to fund the added expenditure. He will be able to veto that since revenues are running a surplus equal to the amount in question according to his own Treasury department. And indeed, another option is to accept the Office of Legislative Services’ even rosier revenue projections, which will then enable him to increase property tax relief.
Governor Christie may have played it meek and mild in his original reaction. But this fight is far from over.