Gov. Christie proposed changes Tuesday to how New Jersey funds schools, pitching a "fairness" formula that would dramatically shift state aid from urban districts to other areas.
In a speech at Hillsborough High School in Somerset County, the Republican governor proposed sending school districts across the state a flat rate of $6,599 per pupil — a plan he framed as a fix to New Jersey's high property taxes and "failures in urban education" that hadn't been solved by state spending.
In some districts, the state allots upward of $20,000 per pupil. Some towns get around $2,000.
Christie told reporters that he would push the Legislature to consider his proposal, including through a constitutional amendment for the 2017 ballot, according to his office.
While Republicans backed the proposal, Democrats who lead the Legislature immediately dismissed it. "This plan is unfair, it is unjust and it is blatantly unconstitutional," Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester), said in a statement with Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D., Essex), the chair of the Senate Education Committee.
Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D., Hudson) called Christie's plan "unconstitutional and harmful to our most vulnerable children."
The New Jersey Supreme Court, in a series of rulings dating to the 1980s, has directed funding to children in the state's poorest districts to ensure a "thorough and efficient system" of education, a provision of the state constitution.
The state's current funding formula — ruled constitutional by the court in 2009 — is weighted to give districts more money for poor students and English language learners, among other factors.
Giving districts the same amount of per-pupil aid "flies in the face of the core requirements of the New Jersey Supreme Court over the years," said Robert Williams, a professor at Rutgers University School of Law who is an expert in state constitutional law.
Christie, who has battled with the court over school funding in the past, said Tuesday that the court had "overcorrected the problem."
While 31 urban school districts — the subject of the court's landmark Abbott v. Burke rulings — represent 23 percent of the state's students, they get 59 percent of state aid to schools, Christie said. His proposed budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 includes $13.3 billion in state aid.
Among those districts are Asbury Park, where the state allots $28,947 per pupil; Camden, which gets $22,975 in state aid per pupil; and Trenton, at $20,589 state aid per pupil, according to Christie's office.
Christie argued that the increased share of aid hasn't paid off: 27 of the 31 districts are below the state graduation rate average, and many students who graduate require remedial classes to do college work, he said.
"Spending does not equal achievement — never has, and it never will," he said.
The state will ensure aid for special needs students, but "they are the exception," Christie said. He said "the overwhelming majority of students" would be subject to the "fairness formula."
Under Christie's proposal, other school districts in the state would receive increased aid — and property taxes would decrease, he said.
Cherry Hill, which the governor's office said receives $2,958 in state aid per pupil, would get an "increase in aid of 411 percent and a drop in property taxes of over $1,700," Christie said. Haddonfield, which gets $2,049 state aid per pupil, would get "an increase in aid of 1,705 percent" and drop in property taxes of nearly $3,600, he said.
The proposal would "slay the dragon of property taxes," while sending increased aid to 75 percent of the state, Christie said.
"This not a budget-cutting proposal," but "a budget reallocation proposal," Christie said.
Christie said he would "demand that the Legislature try to defend the indefensible" — that "one child is worth more" than another, based on zip code, he said.
His announcement drew praise from fellow Republicans. "Nothing is more fair than treating students equally no matter where they live," said Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R., Union), who said he would sponsor the proposal in the Legislature.
Democratic leaders, meanwhile, showed no appetite for the plan. Sweeney — who recently announced his own plan to increase and redistribute school aid — called Christie's proposal "divisive."
"Children do not choose their zip codes, and this proposal decimates educational opportunity," Sweeney said. He recently proposed tasking a commission with bringing all school districts to full funding under the state's formula over five years.
The state's formula hasn't been fully funded — which a number of opponents of Christie's plan cited as the chief problem with school funding in New Jersey.
They also said Christie's plan carried consequences. If implemented, "it would devastate our schools by removing an unprecedented level of educational resources — eachers, guidance counselors, librarians, support programs and services, and more — from districts all across the state," said David G. Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, which argued the Abbott cases.
The proposal would "target communities that educate at-risk children," Sciarra said. Like a number of Democratic lawmakers, he said the plan was unconstitutional.
Wendell Steinhauer, the president of the New Jersey Education Association, said the plan "would result in a huge step backward" and "subsidize those who have the most at the expense of those who have the least."