On motion in aid of litigants' rights from the judgment of this Court, whose opinions are reported at: 136 N.J. 444 (1994) and 119 N.J. 287 (1990).
The opinion of the Court was delivered by Handler, J. Justices Pollock, O'hern, Stein, and Coleman join in Justice Handler's opinion. Justice Garibaldi has filed a separate Dissenting opinion. Chief Justice Poritz did not participate.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Handler
(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).
Raymond Arthur Abbott, et al. v. Fred G. Burke, et al. (M-622-96)
Argued March 3, 1997 -- Decided May 14, 1997
HANDLER, J., writing for a majority of the Court.
Plaintiffs in this action are children attending public schools in various poor urban school districts, the so-called "special needs," or "Abbott," districts. Previously, the Court determined that they were being denied their constitutional right to a "thorough and efficient education." In 1994, the Court directed the Legislature to enact legislation by December 31, 1996, that would assure substantial equivalence, approximating one-hundred percent parity, in per-pupil educational expenditures between wealthy suburban districts and the special needs districts by the 1997-1998 school year. The Legislature was also required to provide for the extra-educational needs of students in plaintiffs' districts. The Court invited applications for relief from any party if at any time there appeared to be less than a reasonable likelihood of compliance with that order.
In April 1996, plaintiffs filed a motion in aid of litigants' rights contending that there was less than a reasonable likelihood that the State would address the continued disparity in per-pupil expenditures between plaintiffs' districts and the wealthy suburban districts, and that the State would likely fail to provide sufficient supplemental programs for plaintiffs' districts. In September 1996, the Court denied the motion, without prejudice to its renewal, because the Legislature was actively considering legislation to meet its constitutional obligation under the thorough and efficient education clause.
The Comprehensive Educational Improvement and Financing Act of 1996 (CEIFA) was enacted into law on December 20, 1996. CEIFA establishes core curriculum content standards that purport to define the substantive level of education required by the Constitution, and contains new education funding provisions purportedly geared toward student achievement at the levels prescribed by the content standards. In addition, CEIFA provides various forms of need-based aid directed primarily at the special needs districts.
Plaintiffs' renewed their motion on January 6, 1997, contending that CEIFA failed to remedy the constitutional deprivations present in the special needs districts.
HELD: The regular education funding provisions of CEIFA are unconstitutional as applied to the special needs districts. Additionally, CEIFA does not adequately address the unique educational disadvantages facing children attending schools in the poor urban districts. The Legislature therefore is required, as interim remedial relief, to assure by the commencement of the 1997-1998 school year, that per-pupil expenditures in the poor urban districts are equivalent to the average per-pupil expenditure in the wealthy suburban districts. The Commissioner is directed to assure that remedial monies are spent effectively and in furtherance of CEIFA's content standards. In respect of the act's failure to address plaintiffs' unique educational disadvantages, the case is remanded to the Superior Court for further proceedings.
1. CEIFA provides a dual approach to education reform. The core curriculum content standards -- the centerpiece of the new statute -- are translated into a per-pupil expenditure through the use of a hypothetical model school district. That process generates the "T & E amount" -- the per-pupil expenditure purportedly sufficient to deliver the education defined by the content standards to all students. CEIFA permits expenditures both below and in excess of the T & E amount, although expenditures in excess of the T & E amount are funded exclusively by locally raised revenue and labeled unnecessary to the delivery of a thorough and efficient education. (pp. 16-22)
2. The core curriculum content standards adequately discharge the Legislature's duty to define the content of a constitutional thorough and efficient education. The content standards represent the first substantial effort on the part of the legislative and executive branches to define a constitutional education, and therefore warrant judicial deference. (pp. 23-26)
3. The function of the Court, however, is to ensure that the entire approach, encompassing both content standards and funding provisions, comports with the Constitution. Without adequate resources, content standards can have little actual impact on the quality of education. Because the record completely fails to validate the T & E amount, the CEIFA approach is constitutionally insufficient. CEIFA's premise that wealthy districts' spending in excess of the T & E amount is wasteful or inefficient and thus irrelevant to the provision of a constitutional education is undermined by the statute itself, the record, and common sense. (pp. 26-31)
4. The theoretical model district used to generate the T & E amount is incapable of accommodating the real differences between the wealthy suburban districts and the poor urban districts, and, accordingly, figures based on it cannot plausibly support a thorough and efficient education in both types of districts. (pp. 27-34)
5. The Court affords the presumption of validity to CEIFA, a legislative enactment founded on administrative expertise. That presumption is rebuttable, however, and the lack of any foundation for the T & E amount warrants judicial rejection. (pp. 34-35)
6. The documented needs of children attending school in the poor urban districts vastly exceed the needs of other school children throughout the State. Those needs must be overcome for the students in the poor urban districts to achieve a constitutionally thorough and efficient education. (pp. 37-42)
7. CEIFA fails to address sufficiently plaintiffs' extra-educational needs. The Demonstrably Effective Program Aid (DEPA) component of CEIFA provides need-based aid for a menu of programs, such as class size reduction programs, parent education programs, and job training programs. The Early Childhood Program Aid (ECPA) component provides need-based aid for full-day kindergarten, preschool classes, and other childhood programs and services. Because the State never conducted the study required by the Court's prior orders to determine the actual needs of children in the special needs districts, the aid amounts provided for by DEPA and ECPA are necessarily arbitrary and therefore fail to satisfy the Court's orders. (pp. 42-49)
8. The State's constitutional obligations towards public education include providing school facilities that have an environment conducive to the achievement of a thorough and efficient education. CEIFA fails to address the documented inadequacies of facilities in plaintiffs' districts and thus fails to meet that component of the State's constitutional obligations. (pp. 49-53)
9. As interim remedial relief, the Court orders the State to assure, by the commencement of the 1997-1998 school year, equivalent per-pupil expenditures between the poor urban districts and the actual average per-pupil expenditure in the wealthy suburban districts. The Commissioner of Education is ordered to assure that all education funding, including and especially the additional funding ordered today, is spent effectively, efficiently, and in furtherance of the achievement of the core curriculum content standards. (pp. 53-66)
10. The case is remanded to the Superior Court for further proceedings. That court shall direct the Commissioner of Education to study and report on the extra-educational needs of the children in the special needs districts, the cost of those programs, the Commissioner's plan for implementation of those programs, together with the facilities needs of plaintiffs' districts. The parties to this action shall be permitted to participate in any proceedings conducted by the Commissioner and the Superior Court. In its discretion, the court may use the assistance of a Special Master in reviewing the Commissioner's report. The Superior Court shall render its decision by December 31, 1997; jurisdiction to review that decision has been retained by the Supreme Court. (pp. 68-70 & Implementing Order)
JUSTICES POLLOCK, O'HERN, STEIN, and COLEMAN join in JUSTICE HANDLER'S opinion. JUSTICE GARIBALDI has filed a separate Dissenting opinion. CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ did not participate.
GARIBALDI, J., Dissenting, is of the view that the approach taken in CEIFA, which places quality of education ahead of parity in funding, is facially constitutional. She interprets the thorough and efficient education clause to mean that the State must provide resources in a manner that optimizes the chance that children will receive an education that will make them productive members of society. Justice Garibaldi takes the position that the majority opinion neither recognizes the statutory presumption of validity nor defers to the special expertise of the Department of Education. She would rely on the Commissioner to exercise the authority provided him by CEIFA to assure that school districts spend their funds more efficiently. In addition, Justice Garibaldi would retain jurisdiction and would give the Commissioner until the 1998-1999 school term for the substantial implementation of the core curriculum.
The opinion of the Court was delivered by
Plaintiffs are children attending public schools in school districts located in poor urban areas, classified as "special needs districts." For many years they have been denied their constitutional right to a thorough and efficient education. We previously held that in the absence of legislation that would assure a constitutionally adequate education, these school children are entitled to judicial relief directed toward the improvement of the educational opportunity available to them.
Plaintiffs contend that recently-enacted legislation, the Comprehensive Educational Improvement and Financing Act of 1996, fails to assure them a thorough and efficient education. They seek by motion, in this action, the judicial relief to which they are entitled. The act prescribes educational standards that define and assess a thorough and efficient education. The act also provides funding for both regular education, as defined by the educational standards, and supplemental programs that are essential to a thorough and efficient education in the special needs districts. The State claims that the Comprehensive Educational Improvement and Financing Act is a new and comprehensive approach to public education that provides children in the special needs districts with the opportunity to achieve a thorough and efficient education, and thus obviates the need for judicial relief.
The Comprehensive Educational Improvement and Financing Act may someday result in the improvement of the educational opportunity available to all New Jersey public school students. We conclude, however, that the new act is incapable of assuring that opportunity for children in the special needs districts for any time in the foreseeable future. Although the educational content standards prescribed by the new act are an essential component of a thorough and efficient education, the primary infirmity of the new act inheres in its funding provisions that fail to assure expenditures sufficient to enable students in the special needs districts to meet those standards. Furthermore, the supplemental aid provided by the new act bears no demonstrable relationship to the real needs of the disadvantaged children attending school in the special needs districts. Those needs must be met to provide students in the deprived districts with the opportunity to achieve a thorough and efficient education.
We hold that the Comprehensive Educational Improvement and Financing Act of 1996 is unconstitutional as applied to the special needs districts. The remedial relief that we order is directed to those constitutional deficiencies. We do not disturb the substantive and performance educational standards. In the absence of adequate funding realistically geared to such educational standards, however, we require that funding for regular education in the special needs districts be increased and that measures be taken to assure the proper and efficient use of expenditures to maximize educational resources and benefits in those districts. We further order the State to study, identify, fund, and implement the supplemental programs required to redress the disadvantages of public school children in the special needs districts.
The New Jersey Constitution mandates that:
The Legislature shall provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of free public schools for the instruction of all the children in the State between the ages of five and eighteen years.
[N.J. Const. art. VIII, § 4.]
Since 1973, students in poor urban school districts have sought fulfillment of that constitutional right. *fn1 This action began in 1981, when children attending public schools in Camden, East Orange, Irvington, and Jersey City filed a complaint in the Superior Court, Chancery Division, challenging the constitutionality of the Public School Education Act of 1975 (1975 Act). L. 1975, c. 212 (codified at N.J.S.A. 18A:7A-1 to -33 (repealed)).
In September 1983, following extensive pretrial discovery proceedings in the case challenging the 1975 Act, defendants filed a motion to dismiss the complaint on the ground that plaintiffs had failed to exhaust their administrative remedies. *fn2 That motion was granted in November 1983. Plaintiffs filed a notice of appeal, and following our order denying direct certification, the Appellate Division reversed the trial court's decision and remanded the case for a plenary hearing. Abbott v. Burke, 195 N.J. Super. 59, 477 A.2d 1278 (1984). We granted defendants' petition for certification, 97 N.J. 669 (1984), and rendered our first decision in this action. Abbott v. Burke, 100 N.J. 269, 495 A.2d 376 (1985) (Abbott I).
In Abbott I, we determined that the ultimate constitutional issues were especially fact-sensitive and related primarily to specialized areas of education and administrative expertise. Id. at 301. Accordingly, we concluded that the issues should be resolved only on the basis of a comprehensive factual record. Ibid. We remanded the matter to the Commissioner of Education (the Commissioner). Ibid. Because the Commissioner was a defendant in Abbott I, however, we ordered that the initial hearing and fact-finding take place before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). Id. at 302.
On August 24, 1988, after extensive hearings and other proceedings spanning a period of over eight months, the ALJ issued a lengthy decision that concluded
that evidence of substantial disparities in educational input (such as course offerings, teacher staffing, and per pupil expenditures) were related to disparities in school district wealth; that the plaintiffs' districts, and others, were not providing the constitutionally mandated thorough and efficient education; that the inequality of educational opportunity statewide itself constituted a denial of a thorough and efficient education; that the failure was systemic; and that the statute and its funding were unconstitutional.
[Abbott v. Burke, No. EDU 5581-88 (OAL 1988) (ALJ Decision) (quoted in Abbott v. Burke, 119 N.J. 287, 297, 575 A.2d 359 (1990) (Abbott II)).]
The Commissioner declined to accept the ALJ's recommendations, and the State Board of Education (State Board) affirmed the Commissioner's determination.
We directly certified plaintiffs' appeal. 117 N.J. 51 (1989). On June 5, 1990, we reversed the decision of the State Board and declared the 1975 Act unconstitutional as applied to twenty-eight poorer urban districts classified within District Factor Groups (DFGs) A & B. *fn3 Abbott II, (supra) , 119 N.J. 287. We compared at length the quality of education delivered in those special needs districts (SNDs) with the education delivered in the more affluent DFG I & J districts and concluded that the SNDs uniformly provided an inferior educational opportunity. Id. at 357-68. We determined that "the level of education offered to students in some of the poorer urban districts is tragically inadequate. Many opportunities offered to students in richer suburban districts are denied them." Id. at 359.
We adopted substantially the material factual findings made by the ALJ, including determinations that: poorer urban districts could not offer important courses; the SNDs provided a deficient education in many essential curriculum areas; and the SNDs operated schools that, due to their age and lack of maintenance, were crumbling and did not provide an environment in which children could learn. Id. at 359-63.
We also considered the special needs of the children in the SNDs, needs that palpably undercut their capacity to learn; we found those needs to be vastly greater than any extra-educational needs of the students in the DFG I & J districts:
The difference is monumental, no matter how it is measured. Those needs go beyond educational needs, they include food, clothing and shelter, and extend to lack of close family and community ties and support and lack of helpful role models. They include the needs that arise from a life led in an environment of violence, poverty, and despair. Urban youth are often isolated from the mainstream of society. Education forms only a small part of their home life, sometimes no part of their school life, and the dropout rate is almost the norm . . . . The goal is to motivate them, to wipe out their disadvantages as much as a school district can, and to give them an educational opportunity that will enable them to use their innate ability.
We concluded that "in order to achieve the constitutional standard for the students from these poorer urban districts -the ability to function in that society entered by their relatively advantaged peers -- the totality of the districts' educational offering must contain elements over and above those found in the affluent suburban district." Id. at 374.
Responding both to the disparity in regular education funding and the special needs of children attending school in the SNDs, we formulated a two-part approach for remediating the constitutional deprivation. We first ordered that "the Act must be amended, or new legislation passed, so as to assure that poorer urban districts' educational funding is substantially equal to that of property-rich districts." Id. at 384. To that end, we required that the assured per-pupil funding in the poorer urban districts should be substantially equivalent to that spent in those districts providing the kind of education that those students needed -- funding that approximated the average net expense budget of school districts in DFGs I & J. Id. at 386. We further ordered that "the level of funding must also be adequate to provide for the special educational needs of these poorer urban districts in order to redress their extreme disadvantages." Id. at 295.
Implementation of the remedy for the constitutional violation was left to the Legislature. We made clear, however, that the remedy could not depend on how much a poorer urban school district was willing to tax itself. Id. at 386. We also stated that the Legislature could choose to equalize per-pupil expenditures for all districts at any level that it determined would achieve a thorough and efficient education -- the level did not necessarily have to be the average of the affluent suburban districts. Id. at 387.
In response to Abbott II, the Legislature enacted the Quality of Education Act of 1990 (QEA). L. 1990, c. 52 (codified at N.J.S.A. 18A:7D-1 to -37 (repealed)). The QEA specified that for the 1991-1992 school year, the cost of a "quality education" would be $6,640 per elementary school pupil (the foundation amount). N.J.S.A. 18A:7D-6(b) (repealed). The act also purported to provide for equalized per-pupil expenditures.
Under the QEA, equalized per-pupil expenditures would be achieved by increasing State aid to the SNDs, while restricting State aid to the DFG I & J districts until the respective per-pupil expenditures were substantially the same. The QEA increased the amount of State aid to the SNDs through the use of a multiplier, termed the special needs weight, that applied only to those districts. Thus, for the first year of the QEA, the special needs weight added five percent to the amount of education aid an SND would receive from the State. N.J.S.A. 18A:7D-6 (repealed). The five-percent weight was an arbitrarily assigned number in that, as stipulated by the parties, the Legislature selected that percentage without relying on any study of the level of funding actually needed for the SNDs to achieve parity. The QEA authorized the Governor to increase the special needs weight, subject to the Legislature's disapproval. N.J.S.A. 18A:7D-13 (repealed). The special needs weight was the mechanism that theoretically would have enabled the SNDs to increase their budgets beyond the foundation amount to achieve parity with the wealthier districts.
The QEA also addressed that part of the Abbott remedy dealing with special, extra-educational needs by creating a new aid program for the at-risk students in the SNDs. N.J.S.A. 18A:7D-32 (repealed). At-risk aid was calculated by multiplying the State foundation aid amount by the number of "pupil units" for at-risk students. The number of pupil units was determined by multiplying the number of students eligible for free meals or milk under the National School Lunch Act or the Child Nutrition Act of 1966 by a legislatively-determined factor termed the at-risk weight. N.J.S.A. 18A:7D-3, -20 (repealed). As with the special needs weight, the at-risk weights were chosen arbitrarily in that the Legislature did not perform any study of the additional costs associated with providing services to at-risk children.
On June 12, 1991, plaintiffs made an application for this Court to assume jurisdiction and to declare the QEA unconstitutional on its face. The Court declined to hear the matter directly but remanded it to the Chancery Division.
On August 31, 1993, the Chancery Division, in an unpublished opinion, held that the QEA failed to assure that funding for regular education in the thirty SNDs would be substantially similar to that of the DFG I & J districts within a reasonable time period. *fn4 Abbott v. Burke, No. 91- C-00150, 1993 WL 379818, at * 14 (N.J. Ch. Div. Aug. 31, 1993). The court also determined that the at-risk aid program was insufficient to address the special needs of disadvantaged children identified in Abbott II. Ibid.
We affirmed the judgment of the Chancery Division and declared the QEA unconstitutional as applied to the special needs districts. Abbott v. Burke, 136 N.J. 444, 643 A.2d 575 (1994) (per curiam) (Abbott III). We found the QEA unconstitutional because of its "failure to assure parity of regular education expenditures between the special needs districts and the more affluent districts," id. at 446-47, and because of its failure adequately to address the unique needs of children in the SNDs, id. at 452-54.
The basic deficiency in the QEA in relation to regular education was its failure to tie the amount that an SND would have to spend to achieve parity, referred to as the equity spending cap, to the amount of State aid the district would receive. Id. at 451. We recognized that the QEA theoretically could permit, through the equity spending cap, and pay for, through increases in the special needs weight, substantial equivalence. We found, however, that such a result would depend on discretionary action and "failed to guarantee adequate funding for [the special needs] districts." Ibid.
The basic deficiency in the at-risk component of the QEA was its failure to meet the special, extra-educational needs of the children in the SNDs. We reiterated our holding in Abbott II:
Students in the special needs districts have distinct and specific requirements for supplemental educational and educationally-related programs and services that are unique to those students, not required in wealthier districts, and that represent an educational cost not included within the amounts expended for regular education.
We also expressed our concern about the "need for supervision of the use of additional funds for the special needs districts, and the need for the State to identify and implement supplemental programs and services targeted to the needs of school children in the special needs districts." Id. at 451. We found that the Commissioner had failed to study which programs and services were needed to aid disadvantaged students as required by Abbott II. Id. at 453. We further determined that the QEA's at-risk weights were not based on any study of the actual costs associated with providing services to at-risk students. Ibid. Lastly, we found that there was no mechanism in place to control, regulate, or monitor the use of the additional funding made available to the SNDs under the act. Id. at 451.
Notwithstanding the Conclusion that the statute was constitutionally deficient, we declined to direct any immediate, affirmative remedial relief. We withheld relief because there had been a substantial increase in State aid to the thirty special needs districts since the Abbott II decision. *fn5 Id. at 447. Consequently, we declared that we would not intervene on behalf of the plaintiffs if the State achieved "substantial equivalence" in funding between property-rich and property-poor districts by the 1997-1998 school year and provided for the special educational needs of students in the SNDs. Ibid. If, however, "a law assuring such substantial equivalence, approximating 100%, for school year 1997-1998 and providing as well for special educational needs is not adopted by September 1996," we indicated that we would consider applications for relief. Id. at 447-48.
In April 1996, plaintiffs filed a Motion in Aid of Litigants' Rights contending that the State had failed to discharge its duty to "further address" the sixteen-percent relative disparity in funding and that the State would fail to provide sufficient supplemental programs for the special needs districts. On September 10, 1996, we denied the motion because the Legislature was actively considering legislation to address its obligation to effectuate the thorough and efficient clause. We denied the motion "without prejudice to its renewal should the Legislature and the Governor fail to enact appropriate legislation on or before December 31, 1996." The Comprehensive Educational Improvement and Financing Act of 1996 (CEIFA), L. 1996, c. 138 (codified at N.J.S.A. 18A:7F-1 to -33), is the legislative response to Abbott III. After its passage, plaintiffs renewed their motion.
CEIFA embodies the legislative determination that a thorough and efficient education can be provided to every public elementary, middle, and high school student in New Jersey in accordance with specific substantive standards that define the content of a constitutionally sufficient education and in accordance with performance assessments that measure levels of educational achievement. The substantive requirements are specified by the core curriculum content standards (content standards or standards), and are intended to implement the thoroughness component of the constitutionally mandated thorough and efficient education.
The substantive educational standards are the centerpiece of the new statute. They were first proposed by the Governor in January 1995, along with an expanded student assessment program that would monitor the progress of students at grades four, eight, and eleven. The formulation process began in February 1995. Several draft versions of the standards were disseminated prior to May 1, 1996, when the Department of Education formally adopted them. See Core Curriculum Content Standards (May 1996). The standards provide achievement goals applicable to all students in seven core academic areas: visual and performing arts, comprehensive health and physical education, language-arts literacy, mathematics, science, social studies, and world languages. *fn6 Infused throughout the seven core academic areas are five "cross-content workplace readiness standards," which are designed to incorporate career-planning skills, technology skills, critical-thinking skills, decision-making and problem-solving skills, self-management, and safety principles. The standards are not a curriculum; rather, they define the results expected without prescribing specific strategies or educational methodologies to ensure that students actually meet those expectations. The development of a curriculum to deliver the educational achievement levels required by the standards is left to the local districts. *fn7
Performance indicators are also incorporated in the act. An improved statewide assessment program, based on the standards, is scheduled to be phased in over the next six years. At present, New Jersey students are not evaluated by the State prior to the eighth-grade level; under the proposed system, students will be evaluated at the fourth-grade level (the Elementary School Proficiency Assessment, or "ESPA"), the eighth-grade level (the Early Warning Test, or "EWT"), and the eleventh-grade level (the High School Proficiency Test, or "HSPT"). The proposed evaluation system is essential to the success of the standards-based approach effectuated by CEIFA, for it is designed to measure student progress toward achievement of the substantive standards and to provide educators and administrators with the information necessary to take corrective action in those areas where students are failing to achieve at the prescribed levels. *fn8
CEIFA includes funding provisions that purport to implement the efficiency component of the constitutional thorough and efficient education. The statute determines that the educational opportunity, as defined by the standards, can and should be provided at a fixed per-pupil cost. The prescribed amount, referred to as the "T & E amount," purports to be the cost that is sufficient to ensure that a thorough and efficient education may be achieved in all districts. Unlike the QEA, which ascribed an arbitrary per-pupil cost for a "quality education" that was not defined, CEIFA correlates educational funding with educational achievement through the T & E amount. Expenditures in excess of the prescribed T & E amount are deemed to be unnecessary to achieve a thorough and efficient education. The funding provisions of CEIFA remain the central focus of our constitutional inquiry because they determine the types and amounts of resources that will be available to enable students to achieve a thorough and efficient education, as defined by the content standards.
The fiscal standards were developed simultaneously with the content standards. The funding scheme is derived from a hypothetical school district that serves as the model for all school districts. The model district contains an elementary school of 500 students, a middle school of 675 students, a high school of 900 students, and a district central office. The model is based on assumptions about the number of teachers, teacher's aides, instructional minutes, professional and technical staff, administrative staff, textbooks, supplies, and equipment required to provide and to deliver efficiently an education conforming to the content standards. The Commissioner then determined, based on statewide averages, the actual costs of those educational inputs. The final step was to apply the actual costs to the assumed efficient level of inputs. The DOE released the final efficiency standards derived from the model school district in May 1996. Comprehensive Plan for Educational Improvement and Financing (May 1996) ("May 1996 Plan").
Based on the final content standards and the final fiscal provisions, the DOE concluded that it would cost $6,720, plus or minus $336, *fn9 to provide the constitutionally required educational opportunity to every New Jersey elementary school pupil in 1997-1998. *fn10 That number, the T & E amount, was incorporated by the Legislature into CEIFA. See N.J.S.A. 18A:7F-12. Both the T & E amount and the flexible amount will be adjusted by the CPI for the 1998-1999 school year, and established biennially by the Commissioner thereafter. Ibid.
The T & E amount is neither the minimum nor the maximum amount that a school district is permitted to spend perpupil. See N.J.S.A. 18A:7F-5(d). Like all of the predecessor statutes, CEIFA requires each school district to raise locally a portion of the per-pupil expenditure. Similar to the QEA, the required local share under CEIFA is dependent on local property taxes. It is calculated based on local district property wealth and the average income of district taxpayers; in short, the required local share is based on the districts' ability to pay. N.J.S.A. 18A:7F-5(b). State aid makes up the difference between the required local share and the T & E amount (multiplied by student enrollment). Every district is permitted to raise locally and to spend in excess of the T & E amount, but a district's total budget may not increase from its prior year's budget by more than the "spending growth limitation." *fn11 N.J.S.A. 18A:7F-5(d). The statute also provides an avenue for increased local spending notwithstanding the spending growth limitation. See N.J.S.A. 18A:7F-5(d)(9) (providing for additional local spending pursuant to separate proposals submitted for approval at the annual school budget election).
The State contends that, for the first time, New Jersey has a comprehensive approach to the provision of a thorough and efficient education that correlates funding with substantive education. School funding determinations now will be based on how much it actually costs to provide students with an opportunity to meet defined achievement levels that equate with a thorough and efficient education. The State acknowledges that discretionary amounts can be spent in excess of the T & E amount, at least by the wealthier school districts. It contends, however, that such expenditures are inefficient and therefore unnecessary in achieving a thorough and efficient education, as defined by the statute's content standards. For that reason, according to the State, such excess spending by the wealthier districts is immaterial to the inquiry into whether students in the special needs districts are receiving a thorough and efficient education. In other words, the State asserts that CEIFA permits disparate per-pupil expenditures because those students who receive more educational resources are receiving superfluous and unneeded educational benefits, and those students who receive less educational resources nevertheless will receive that which is needed to provide a thorough and efficient education.
The State's argument in defense of the new approach thus frames the inquiry -- CEIFA must stand or fall based on the validity of its premise that the T & E amount is sufficient to provide a thorough and efficient education for all students and that spending in excess of that amount in the wealthier districts is nothing more than expenditure that is inefficient and unnecessary for a thorough and efficient education.
With the promulgation and adoption of substantive standards that define a thorough and efficient education, New Jersey joins a trend in favor of a standards-based approach to the improvement of public education. The movement for standards-based reform began in the late 1980s, and emerged as the principal strategy of educators in the early 1990s. See Lynn Olson, Keeping Tabs on Quality, Education Week: Quality Counts, Jan. 22, 1997, at 7-14.
Plaintiffs do not challenge the constitutionality or validity of the content standards. We fully acknowledge the substantial efforts of the coordinate branches to develop and to establish a comprehensive statutory and administrative system for public education founded on standards that define the substantive meaning of education and that provide for measures of educational performance and achievement. We conclude that the statutory standards are consistent with the Constitution's education clause.
In interpreting the constitutional meaning of a thorough and efficient education, the Court has consistently recognized that the Legislature is charged with the primary responsibility for public education. The Court has stressed repeatedly that "the Legislature's role in education is fundamental and primary," and, "the definition of the constitutional provision by this Court, therefore, must allow the fullest scope to the exercise of the Legislature's legitimate power." Abbott II, (supra) , 119 N.J. at 304.
At its core, a constitutionally adequate education has been defined as an education that will prepare public school children for a meaningful role in society, one that will enable them to compete effectively in the economy and to contribute and to participate as citizens and members of their communities. See Abbott I, (supra) , 100 N.J. at 280-81 (noting that the Constitution requires "that educational opportunity which is needed in the contemporary setting to equip a child for his role as a citizen and as a competitor in the labor market" (citing Robinson I, (supra) , 62 N.J. at 515)); Landis v. School Dist. No. 44, 57 N.J.L. 509, 512 (Sup. Ct. 1895) (stating that a constitutionally adequate education must be "capable of affording to every child such instruction as is necessary to fit it for the ordinary duties of citizenship").
In Abbott II, the Court, was confronted with a clearly-demonstrated violation of the constitutional right to a thorough and efficient education for public school children in the poor urban districts, and was therefore impelled to find appropriate remedial relief. In the absence of legislative or administrative guidance, the Court looked to those districts that most likely were providing a level of education consistent with the Constitution. The Court concluded that, as a partial remedy for the constitutional deprivation, the State would have to assure a per-pupil expenditure for regular education in the SNDs that was substantially equivalent to the average per-pupil expenditure in the successful, DFG I & J districts. Abbott II, (supra) , 119 N.J. at 385. The Court's remedial order, though pragmatic in nature and necessarily incomplete and limited, was designed to further the achievement of an education that imparts those "critically important" skills needed to compete in the labor market, and that bestows the capacity to function as a citizen -- as a contributing and participating member of society and one's community. Id. at 363.
The Court, without any valid legislative implementation of the constitutional education clause, has labored to devise appropriate remedies to ameliorate the deprivation of an adequate education in the special needs districts. Cf. Robinson I, (supra) , 62 N.J. at 519 (specifically noting that a determination of the adequacy of public education was complicated by the fact that "the State has never spelled out the content of the constitutionally mandated educational opportunity"). The Legislature has now taken a major step to spell out and explain the meaning of a constitutional education. The content and performance standards prescribed by the new statute represent the first real effort on the part of the legislative and executive branches to define and to implement the educational opportunity required by the Constitution. It is an effort that strongly warrants judicial deference. Cf. Hills Dev. Co. v. Bernards Twp., 103 N.J. 1, 510 A.2d 621 (1986) (upholding Fair Housing Act, N.J.S.A. 52:27D-301 to -328, as an adequate and valid legislative response to this Court's fair-housing decisions). We therefore conclude that the standards are facially adequate as a reasonable legislative definition of a constitutional thorough and efficient education. *fn12
Our function, however, is to determine whether the new approach encompassing content and performance standards, together with funding measures, comports with the constitutional guarantee of a thorough and efficient education for all New Jersey school children. The standards themselves do not ensure any substantive level of achievement. Real improvement still depends on the sufficiency of educational resources, successful teaching, effective supervision, efficient administration, and a variety of other academic, environmental, and societal factors needed to assure a sound education. Content standards, therefore, cannot answer the fundamental inquiry of whether the new statute assures the level of resources needed to provide a thorough and efficient education to children in the special needs districts.
The funding provisions of the new statute purport to link educational inputs to the attainment of the content standards. Although a majority of states have moved toward a standards-based approach to public education, *fn13 New Jersey appears to be the first state to try to base funding determinations on achievement standards. The dual strategy adopted by the State must be measured against the standard of the thorough and efficient education clause. Because CEIFA does not in any concrete way attempt to link the content standards to the actual funding needed to deliver that content, we conclude that this strategy, as implemented by CEIFA, is clearly inadequate and thus unconstitutional as applied to the special needs districts.
The efficiency standards undergirding the statute's funding provisions are derived from a model district that has few, if any, characteristics of any of the State's successful districts. The State contends that it would be inappropriate to require funding determinations to be based on those districts because, despite their educational success, they have "notable inefficiencies" in their spending practices and, for that reason, the amount that they spend on education cannot serve as the measure of the amount necessary to achieve a constitutionally adequate education.
Neither CEIFA itself, the record in this case, empirical evidence, common experience, nor intuition supports the State's position that inefficiencies explain why successful districts' spending levels exceed what the State asserts is the ...