Inquirer editorial: Christie school plan about politics, not children

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Donald Trump and Chris Christie at a town hall campaign event in Hickory, North Carolina. March 14, 2016. Trump is reportedly considering Christie as a potential running mate.

With prospective Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump looking for a running mate, Gov. Christie's stingy school funding plan could give him street cred with fiscal conservatives. But it ignores New Jersey's court-ordered commitment to spend more to aid the state's neediest schools.

In announcing his school funding plan, Christie said it made no sense to continue giving extra money to mostly urban school districts where "failure is the rule, not the exception." He instead wants to give every district a flat rate of $6,599 per student and use the resulting savings to help largely suburban districts reduce property taxes.

Christie calls his plan the "Fairness Formula," but there's nothing fair about ignoring the factors that increase the cost of education in some districts, including higher proportions of students who are poor and of those who speak English as a second language. There's nothing fair about ignoring the landmark Abbott v. Burke state Supreme Court decisions, which require the state to help poorer districts meet the educational needs of their students.

The Newark-based Education Law Center, which filed the suit that led to the first Abbott ruling in 1985, says Christie's formula would violate the state constitution's directive to provide a "thorough and efficient" education to all New Jersey children. Teachers, guidance counselors, librarians, and support services would be lost, and class sizes would grow, as districts try to make ends meet with less funding.

The state currently allocates about $5 billion to its 31 poorest school districts, while the other 546 split $4 billion in state aid. But Christie should know that discrepancy can't be divorced from the reason it exists. Districts in jurisdictions with low property values can't raise as much revenue for schools as wealthier districts can through property taxes. State aid helps fill the gap.

Christie is right to criticize dismal academic outcomes in school districts that receive more state aid. But rather than punish schoolchildren by taking away the funds needed to supplement their instruction, he should figure out why the state does such a poor job of making sure the education money it allocates is well-spent. Isn't that the state Department of Education's job? It's failing.

Senate President Steve Sweeney (D., Gloucester), who has political ambitions of his own, has proposed giving schools an additional $500 million over five years and ending a policy that prevents the state from reducing funding even when a district may not need as much aid. The likely gubernatorial candidate wants a panel to study the state's education funding formula and recommend changes. That makes more sense than Christie's shoot-from-the-hip cuts.