On appeal from the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 158 N.J. Super. 67 (1978).
For affirmance -- Chief Justice Hughes and Justices Mountain, Sullivan, Pashman, Clifford, Schreiber and Handler. For reversal -- None. The opinion of the court was delivered by Sullivan, J.
The consolidated appeal herein, filed as of right in two separate cases, involves certain aspects of the Public School Education Act of 1975. N.J.S.A. 18A:7A-1 et seq. The 1975 Act was passed in response to the mandate of this Court in Robinson v. Cahill (I through IV), 62 N.J. 473 (1973), cert. den. 414 U.S. 976, 94 S. Ct. 292, 38 L. Ed. 2d 219, 63 N.J. 196 (1973), cert. den. 414 U.S. 976, 94 S. Ct. 292, 38 L. Ed. 2d 219 (1973), 67 N.J. 35 (1975) and 69 N.J. 133 (1975) that, under the N.J. Const., Art. VIII, § IV, par. 1, it was the Legislature's obligation to provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of free public schools. In Robinson (V), 69 N.J. 449 (1976), we found the 1975 Act to be facially constitutional (assuming it was fully funded).
The appeal herein basically involves two aspects of the allocation formula for equalization aid to school districts for current expenses contained in section 18 of the 1975 Act. One of the factors used in the formula is resident enrollment which is defined in section 3 as:
* * * The number of pupils who are resident of the district and are enrolled in day or approved evening schools on the last school day of September of the pre-budget year and are attending the public schools of the district * * *. (emphasis added)
The formula involves other factors such as the equalized value of real property ratables in each district.*fn1 However, generally the poorer the district in ratables the more aid per pupil and the more public school pupils in a district, the greater the amount of state aid it would receive.
Plaintiffs-appellants contend that the statutory restriction of the formula to public school children, thereby excluding those pupils attending private and parochial schools in a district, means less state equalization aid to a district than if private and parochial school pupils were included in the formula. The result, according to plaintiffs, is higher real estate taxes in the district since, basically the difference between state aid and a school district's expenses of operation must be raised by local taxation.
In the Karcher suit plaintiffs are the members of a family living in the Borough of Sayreville. The husband and wife own the family home and pay real property taxes to the borough. Approximately 70% of the money raised by taxes in Sayreville is used for the support of the local public school system. The Karchers are members of the Roman Catholic Church and two of their three children attend Catholic schools. Defendants named are the Governor of New Jersey, the Treasurer and the Commissioner of Education.
The Karchers allege that the statutory formula for distributing state equalization aid to local school districts, by failing to include pupils attending sectarian schools, denies them due process and equal protection and has a
chilling effect upon their first amendment right to the free exercise of their religion. Specifically, it is contended that the Karcher children, now attending Catholic schools, can be included in the formula only if they surrender their constitutionally guaranteed freedoms by transferring to public schools. The parents contend that by exercising their right to send their children to a Catholic school they are being forced to pay higher real property taxes than they otherwise would have to pay.
The Karchers also charge that the Commissioner's use of enrollment figures in applying the formula without giving consideration to attendance (whether it be average attendance or some variation thereof) is contrary to the statutory requirement that the figure to be used is "the number of pupils who * * * are enrolled * * * and are attending the public schools of the district * * *." They allege that their local public school district has a low absentee rate as compared with some other districts which have consistently higher absentee rates so that ...