On motion for review of the Constitutionality of the School Funding Reform Act of 2008 and Cross-Motion for an Interim Order Preserving the Status Quo and Clarifying Procedural Protections.
(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).
In this matter, the Court considers whether the State's new school funding formula embodied in the School Funding Reform Act of 2008 (SFRA), L. 2007, c. 260, is constitutional as applied to the Abbott districts.
Since the early 1970s, pupils attending some of New Jersey's poorest school districts have come to the courts to obtain fulfillment of their right to a thorough and efficient education guaranteed by the New Jersey Constitution. N.J. Const. art. VIII, § 4. In Abbott v. Burke, 119 N.J. 287 (1990) (Abbott II), plaintiffs carried their burden to overcome the presumption of validity that is accorded to legislative enactments, and successfully demonstrated the unconstitutionality of public school funding provided by the State. The State was ordered to provide plaintiffs attending special needs districts (later designated "Abbott districts") with a constitutionally compliant education.
The State's efforts to comply with its constitutional obligation have spanned decades. Plaintiffs have had to bring numerous challenges to ensure that the State satisfied its constitutional obligation. Their success has enabled children in Abbott districts to show measurable educational improvement.
In January 2008, the Legislature passed, and the Governor signed into law, a new school funding formula, the SFRA. The State sought to reopen this matter by filing a motion seeking declarations that the SFRA satisfies the requirements of the thorough and efficient education clause of the New Jersey Constitution and, further, that the Court's prior remedial orders concerning the provision of a thorough and efficient education in the Abbott districts "are no longer necessary." Plaintiffs, through the Education Law Center (ELC), opposed the State's motion. Moreover, plaintiffs filed a cross-motion seeking an order that preserves the "status quo" and that specifically declares that this Court's prior remedial orders remain in force.
HELD: The State's application to have its new school funding formula declared constitutional and plaintiffs' cross-motion seeking an order to preserve the status quo cannot be resolved on an undeveloped record. The matter must be remanded for further proceedings.
1. Legislative enactments enjoy a presumption of validity. Ordinarily, a party challenging a legislative enactment bears the burden of overcoming that presumption and proving that the law is unconstitutional. The SFRA, however, was not enacted in an ordinary context. Plaintiffs, more than once, have carried their burden when challenging prior school funding statutes, resulting in the invalidation of those funding schemes. The existing decisions and orders of this Court must serve as the starting point for any discussions of the constitutionality of SFRA as applied to pupils who are the beneficiaries of those rulings. Because those decisions have dictated, to date, how a constitutional level of state funding for the pupils in Abbott districts is to be provided, SFRA's constitutionality, which otherwise would be presumptive, must be approached differently. In essence, the question is whether the formula should be permitted to replace the funding methodology previously ordered. (pp. 6-9)
2. According to the State, the Department of Education (DOE) decided to use a professionally recognized methodology, known as the Professional Judgment Panel (PJP) approach, to develop the SFRA. Pursuant to that method, one identifies the desired performance standards, then develops prototypical model districts, and finally employs panels of experts to determine the resources needed to reach the selected performance standards in those districts. The DOE's methodology began with a determination that its performance standards would be the Core Curriculum Content Standards (CCCS) that this Court deemed to be a reasonable definition of a constitutionally sufficient, thorough and efficient education in Abbott IV. The DOE next turned to three panels of experts to identify the educational resources needed to meet the CCCS. One round of panelists included an ELC representative and representatives from the Abbott districts. The findings, and the process used to develop them, were set forth in a December 2006 Report on the Cost of Education (Report). DOE held public hearings and invited public comment on the Report. That led to publication of a January 2007 Addendum. The DOE then convened another panel of experts to finalize a new funding formula. (pp. 9-13)
3. The DOE decided to base its formula on one model district--the "large" district--out of the original six models. Its rationale for this was based on several considerations. DOE claims larger districts are generally more efficient, and, therefore, the use of that model would provide incentives for the creation of larger, more efficient districts. In addition, DOE asserts that such districts tend to have more at-risk students, and generally are more likely to reflect the characteristics of a greater number of districts. DOE then applied certain categorical cost-enhancements to the model; adjusted the formula to use actual-cost data for salary benefits and vocational schools; increased resources for certain at-risk students; and expanded the provision of preschool programs. One of the primary differences between the new formula and prior school funding formulas is that virtually all aid under the new formula is wealth-equalized. Each district contributes to its school budget an amount that is based on its ability to raise local revenue. (pp. 13-17)
4. In December 2007, DOE published A Formula for Success: All Children, All Communities, which included DOE's final version of its funding proposal. The SFRA generally incorporates that formula. The SFRA also imposes a number of systemic requirements. The Governor must generate and present to the Legislature an Educational Adequacy Report every three years that addresses recommendations for adjustments to the formula. In addition, the Commissioner independently is required to study the special education census methodology by June 2010 to determine whether adjustments are needed. (pp. 17-20)
5. The Court must consider, first, whether its prior holdings preclude an alternative legislative approach to financial support for a thorough and efficient education. In the Abbott I and Abbott II decisions, the Court used the most affluent school districts, the "I and J" districts, as a benchmark it could identify for success. It looked to those districts it deemed were likely to be providing a level of education that was consistent with the Constitution. The Court ordered that the funding for the Abbott districts must approximate the average funding of the I and J districts, and, further, that the funding be adequate to provide for the special educational needs of students in the Abbott districts. In Abbott IV, the Court concluded that the CCCS established in the Comprehensive Educational Improvement and Financing Act of 1996 (CEIFA), provided a constitutionally acceptable definition of a thorough and efficient education. The Court was unable to approve the fiscal standards adopted in CEIFA to support the CCCS because the standards were based on costs in a hypothetical school district that supposedly served as a model for all school districts. Faced with no viable alternative, the Court ordered the parity remedy, resorting to the I and J district average as an objective and reasonable indicator of resources needed to achieve the CCCS. The Court allowed that the Legislature and Executive Branches could devise an adequate alternative funding remedy so long as the State could show, convincingly, that a thorough and efficient education can be met through expenditures lower than parity. (pp. 20-25)
6. Except for individual years in which a freeze on State funding forced economies in the operation of the funding scheme, the State has abided by the Court-ordered parity remedy enhanced by supplemental funding to the Abbott districts. Plaintiffs take the position that the State must prove a lack of need for the funds currently going to the support of I and J districts in order to displace parity with SFRA or any other funding scheme. The Court does not agree that the parity remedy is the only means by which this Court could envision a constitutional funding scheme. Another funding approach may prove constitutionally satisfactory. The parity order was chosen because of the absence of any other "measuring stick" by which to gauge the necessary educational resources for the CCCS to be provided in districts having large concentrations of poor children within their pupil population. (pp. 25-26)
7. The Court begins its consideration of the applications from the parties by declaring that another funding approach may prove constitutionally satisfactory. That said, it is the State's obligation to demonstrate that it has produced an equitable funding formula that can provide Abbott districts with sufficient resources to enable them to provide a thorough and efficient education as defined by the CCCS standards. The Court's prior remedial orders require no less. By that, however, the Court does not mean that to be constitutional the formula must produce the equivalent in exact dollar amount to that which parity/supplemental-program funding would have provided. (pp. 27-28)
8. The State robustly asserts that the SFRA formula provides all districts, including Abbott districts, with sufficient funds to deliver a constitutionally adequate education by providing sufficient support for the CCCS standards. Because the State's assertions of a revised constitutional funding scheme are supported only by affidavits, which are challenged by opposing affidavits from plaintiffs and by submissions of the amici Abbott districts, the Court is in no position to resolve this matter on the present record. Live testimony and cross-examination will be required to resolve disputed matters of fact. The burden of proof shall be on the State, as it has been each time the State has advanced a new funding program that it has asserted to be compliant with the thorough and efficient constitutional requirement. (pp. 28-29)
9. In this instance, the remand issue is limited. The issue to be resolved is whether the State has overcome the deficiencies found in CEIFA's funding provisions as applied to Abbott districts. Because the Court's prior decisions and orders shall remain in effect during the pendency of the remand and until an alternative funding program is approved for the Abbott districts, maintenance of funding to the Abbott districts consistent with those standards shall be required. The State informs the Court that the Abbott districts are funded in the 2009 fiscal year at 102% of the 2008 fiscal year's funding level for each district. The Court considers that level of funding for any individual Abbott district to be presumptively sufficient for the current year. Nevertheless, the Court is reluctant to deprive the Abbott districts of the opportunity to demonstrate that, within the limits of their current year funding, they are incapable of providing a thorough and efficient education. Therefore, the remand shall not preclude an Abbott district from attempting such a demonstration in order to rebut the presumption of sufficient current year funding. (pp. 29-31)
This matter is REMANDED to a special master appointed by Order of the Court. Jurisdiction is otherwise retained.
Argued September 22, 2008
JUSTICES LaVECCHIA, ALBIN, WALLACE, RIVERA-SOTO, and HOENS join in the Court's opinion. CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER and JUSTICE LONG did not participate.
Since the early 1970s, pupils attending some of New Jersey's poorest school districts have come to the courts of this state to obtain fulfillment of their right to a thorough and efficient education guaranteed by the New Jersey Constitution. N.J. Const. art. VIII, § 4. This Court has enforced that constitutional guarantee for students in so-called "special needs" school districts since 1973, first in the Robinson v. Cahill litigation,*fn1 and, later, in this action, commenced in 1981 to challenge the constitutionality of the Public School Education Act of 1975, L. 1975, c. 212 (Chapter 212).
In our first decision in this matter, this Court referred plaintiffs' challenge to the Commissioner of Education for the development of a record. Abbott v. Burke, 100 N.J. 269 (1985) (Abbott I). Ultimately, plaintiffs carried their burden to overcome the presumption of validity that is accorded to legislative enactments, and successfully demonstrated the unconstitutionality of public school funding under Chapter 212 as applied to them. See Abbott v. Burke, 119 N.J. 287 (1990) (Abbott II). The State was ordered to provide plaintiffs attending special needs districts (later designated as "Abbott districts") with a constitutionally compliant education, id. at 374, supported by funding in accordance with standards established to guide the State's achievement of a constitutional system of education, id. at 384-86.
The State's efforts to comply with its constitutional obligation have spanned decades. Plaintiffs have had to bring numerous challenges to ensure that the State satisfied its constitutional obligation. They have worked long and hard to obtain a constitutionally sound, mandated educational program that is supported by a consistent level of State funding. And, their success has enabled children in Abbott districts to show measurable educational improvement. That background brings the present application into sharp relief.
In January 2008, the Legislature passed, and the Governor signed into law, a new school funding formula titled the School Funding Reform Act of 2008 (SFRA), L. 2007, c. 260. Thereafter, the State sought to reopen this matter by filing a motion seeking declarations that the SFRA satisfies the requirements of the thorough and efficient education clause of the New Jersey Constitution and, further, that the Court's prior remedial orders concerning the provision of a thorough and efficient education in the Abbott districts "are no longer necessary." Plaintiffs, through the Education Law Center (ELC), opposed the State's motion. Moreover, plaintiffs filed a cross-motion seeking an order that preserves the "status quo" in this decades-old litigation and that specifically declares that this Court's prior remedial orders remain in force.
On September 22, 2008, the Court heard oral argument on the dual applications. For the reasons hereinafter set forth, we conclude that this matter cannot be resolved on an undeveloped record. Because the issues before us require more than a summary review, we order that this matter be remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
It is well recognized that legislative enactments enjoy a presumption of validity. See State v. Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts, 160 N.J. 505, 526 (1999) (noting that presumption of validity attaches to statutory enactments); Abbott v. Burke, 149 N.J. 145, 174 (1997) (Abbott IV) ("We do not minimize the State's contention that, as a legislative enactment [the statute before us] is entitled to a presumption of validity"); N.J. Sports & Exposition Auth. v. McCrane, 61 N.J. 1, 8 (1972) (recognizing presumption of validity conferred on legislative enactments), appeal dismissed sub nom, Borough of E. Rutherford v. N.J. Sports & Exposition Auth., 409 U.S. 943, 93 S.Ct. 270, 34 L.Ed. 2d 215 (1972); Gangemi v. Berry, 25 N.J. 1, 10 (1957) (same). Ordinarily, a party challenging a legislative enactment bears the burden of overcoming that presumption and proving that the law is unconstitutional. See Hamilton Amusement Ctr. v. Verniero, 156 N.J. 254, 285 (1998) (noting that party may overcome presumption of constitutionality by demonstrating, beyond reasonable doubt, statute's repugnancy to Constitution (citing Harvey v. Bd. of Chosen Freeholders, 30 N.J. 381, 388 (1959))); see also Jamouneau v. Harner, 16 N.J. 500, 515 (1954) (explaining that when constitutionality of legislation must be addressed, every reasonable intention is accorded to enactment). As Chief Justice Hughes explained, our judicial restraint springs from a seemly respect for the act of a co-equal branch of government, as well as for the public interest in the effective operations of government--both elements invoking a "broad tolerance" in considering a charge of constitutional evasion or excess. [N.J. Ass'n on Correction v. Lan, 80 N.J. 199, 218 (1979) (citations omitted).]
The SFRA, however, was not enacted in an ordinary context. Plaintiffs, more than once, have carried their burden when challenging prior school funding statutes, resulting in the invalidation of those funding schemes. See, e.g., Abbott IV, supra, 149 N.J. at 188; Abbott v. Burke, 136 N.J. 444, 451 (1994) (Abbott III). As a consequence of plaintiffs' successful prior challenges to constitutionally deficient funding schemes, this Court has entered specific remedial orders to ensure that plaintiffs would receive a constitutional level of funding. See infra, Section III.A (summarizing history of Court's involvement, fashioning remedies to ensure plaintiffs' receipt of State-supported thorough and efficient education). SFRA is the most recent legislative effort toward the enactment of a constitutional school funding statute. We cannot ignore that SFRA's passage came in the wake of the constraining circumstances of those prior remedial orders directed at the State.
The State comprehends the unique procedural circumstances before us because its application includes a request to be relieved from compliance with this Court's prior remedial orders. The State also asks that we declare the new SFRA funding formula constitutional. The State made the policy choice to provide state funding to public school districts in the current fiscal year consistent with SFRA.
We cannot give an advisory opinion on SFRA's statewide constitutionality. The Abbott v. Burke litigation does not provide this Court with jurisdiction to address the statute's applicability to students not before the Court. However, we do have jurisdiction to determine whether SFRA is constitutional as applied to pupils in the Abbott districts. Moreover, the existing decisions and orders of this Court must serve as the starting point for any ...