Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

Gov. Christie of NJ’s education budget cuts ruled unconstitutional

May 25, 2011

Oh, my…  On the education front it turns out that perhaps Gov. Chris Christie of NJ may not be the Great White Hope that the Republicans are praying for.  In an article in today’s NYT we learn that “Court Orders New Jersey to Increase Aid to Schools,” reported by Richard Perez-Pena and Winnie Hu.  Turns out that defying prior court orders is frowned upon.  Here’s the article:

The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that a major piece of Gov. Chris Christie’s cost-cutting was unconstitutional and ordered lawmakers to raise spending for poor, urban schools by $500 million next year, despite a state budget shortfall estimated at $10 billion.

The decision is a new milestone in the intertwined disputes over school financing, taxation and the role of the courts that have roiled the state’s politics since the 1970s. And those disputes remain; the ruling intensifies Mr. Christie’s running battles with the Supreme Court and the Legislature, and it will resonate in the coming negotiations to balance the budget, negotiate new contracts with state workers and rescue the government employee pension plans.

The majority in the 3-to-2 decision accused the state of willfully violating previous Supreme Court orders in the long-running school-aid case under review.

“Like anyone else, the state is not free to walk away from judicial orders enforcing constitutional obligations,” Justice Jaynee LaVecchia wrote in the ruling. She added that “the state made a conscious and calculated decision” to renege on the commitment it made two years ago, the last time the case, Abbott v. Burke, went before the court.

In response, Mr. Christie again cited school financing as the chief example of a liberal court run amok, which he vowed to remedy by choosing more conservative justices. Answering questions at a public forum in Cherry Hill, N.J., he said, “I’m going to appoint people who I believe understand their job, which is to interpret the law and not make law from the bench.”

Earlier, in a news conference at the State House, the governor said, “I believe that this decision represents everything that’s wrong with how Trenton has historically operated and everything that I’m here to fight to change.” He said the Supreme Court “should not be dictating how taxpayer dollars are spent and prioritizing certain programs over others.”

While the additional aid ordered by the court was far less than the $1.7 billion requested by some schools advocates, it was still a blow to a governor who has made a national name for himself by cutting spending and assailing perquisites and benefits for public employees, particularly teachers. He has accused the teachers’ union, the New Jersey Education Association, and the courts of promoting the view that more money equals better schools, a position he says has been discredited by decades of failure.

Jon S. Corzine, the Democrat who preceded Mr. Christie as governor, used a one-time infusion of federal stimulus money to increase school spending, even as the state budget shrank. But as that money ran out, Mr. Christie, a Republican who took office last year, cut more than $1 billion in aid to all 591 of the state’s school districts, out of an overall budget of more than $10 billion.

The decision on Tuesday will have no direct impact on most of those districts. Instead, the court order increased aid for only the 31 low-income, urban districts that have long been the subject of the Abbott case. The case, a lawsuit first filed in 1981, has resulted in a series of Supreme Court rulings that have forced the state to funnel billions of dollars into those districts, in cities like Camden, Elizabeth, Jersey City, Newark, Passaic, Paterson, Trenton and Union City.

Mr. Christie said he would comply with the latest ruling, though he had previously suggested that he might ignore such an order. He challenged the Democrats who control the Legislature to figure out where to get the money and ruled out a tax increase to pay for the spending.

Traditionally, the governor and the Legislature spend much of June hammering out a state budget, which is supposed to be adopted by the end of the month.

David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, the plaintiff in the Abbott case, said, “Neither the governor nor the Legislature should walk away from this at this critical point in time.” He said the need remained “to remedy the harmful impact” of aid cuts on children who were not in the so-called Abbott districts.

Stephen M. Sweeney, the State Senate president, said the governor “was well aware that his draconian cuts to education were illegal,” and noted that in his 2009 campaign, Mr. Christie vowed not to cut school financing.

Some lawmakers pointed out that state revenues were running above projections by an amount close to the $500 million mandated by the court, an amount roughly equal to the sum that would be raised by reinstating the so-called millionaire’s tax on the highest incomes, which expired at the end of 2009.

But last year, Mr. Christie vetoed an effort to revive that tax, and this year, as the state’s fiscal crisis eases and every legislative seat is up for election, there appears to be less appetite for raising the issue again.

In practice, most communities pay for their schools primarily with local taxes, not money from Trenton. But according to the State Constitution, the Legislature has the duty to “provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of free public schools.”

The Supreme Court found, in Robinson v. Cahill in 1973, that the state had violated that mandate. The state then adopted its first personal income tax in 1976, to increase school financing.

Abbott, a similar case, followed, producing a string of rulings that said the state still was not living up to its constitutional duty.

Later Abbott rulings required parity between financing for schools in poor, urban districts and those in affluent suburbs. Yet those low-income districts continued to lag far behind in achievement.

For years, Democrats and Republicans alike complained that Abbott concentrated too much aid on a few urban districts, when many suburban and rural districts had smaller but still significant numbers of needy children.

In 2008, Governor Corzine and the Legislature enacted a new school financing formula that steered increased aid to 205 of the state’s districts rather than the 31 urban districts only. The Supreme Court ruled that the new system was acceptable as long as the state adhered to specific financing commitments for the Abbott districts.

On Tuesday, the court found that the state’s budget-cutting “amounts to nothing less than a reneging on the representations it made.”

But the 3-to-2 decision, and the other opinions that were issued, reveal a deeply divided court. One justice, Barry T. Albin, joined in the majority ruling, but also wrote a separate opinion stating that he would have required the state to stick to the 2008 formula for the 205 districts, which would have roughly doubled the ruling’s cost to the state.

Chief Justice Stuart J. Rabner, a former aide to Governor Corzine, recused himself from the case, as did Justice Virginia Long.

The two dissenting justices, Helen E. Hoens and Roberto A. Rivera-Soto, challenged the legality of the ruling, saying significant decisions required the support of four justices no matter how many were present.

So, since raising taxes is OBVIOUSLY out of the question, I wonder what safety net they’ll decide to defund?


Branching out a bit here…

May 24, 2011

It’s getting harder and harder for young folks who aren’t wealthy to afford a college education, and they’re pretty much relegated to flipping burgers or something like that if they don’t have the education.  Catch-22 much?  Today David Leonhardt addresses that in his article “Top Colleges, Largely for the Elite.”  It’s worth your time to read it.  Here he is:

The last four presidents of the United States each attended a highly selective college. All nine Supreme Court justices did, too, as did the chief executives of General Electric (Dartmouth), Goldman Sachs (Harvard), Wal-Mart (Georgia Tech), Exxon Mobil (Texas) and Google (Michigan).

Like it or not, these colleges have outsize influence on American society. So their admissions policies don’t matter just to high school seniors; they’re a matter of national interest.

More than seven years ago, a 44-year-old political scientist named Anthony Marx became the president of Amherst College, in western Massachusetts, and set out to change its admissions policies. Mr. Marx argued that elite colleges were neither as good nor as meritocratic as they could be, because they mostly overlooked lower-income students.

For all of the other ways that top colleges had become diverse, their student bodies remained shockingly affluent. At the University of Michigan, more entering freshmen in 2003 came from families earning at least $200,000 a year than came from the entire bottom half of the income distribution. At some private colleges, the numbers were even more extreme.

In his 2003 inaugural address, Mr. Marx — quoting from a speech President John F. Kennedy had given at Amherst — asked, “What good is a private college unless it is serving a great national purpose?”

On Sunday, Mr. Marx presided over his final Amherst graduation. This summer, he will become head of the New York Public Library. And he can point to some impressive successes at Amherst.

More than 22 percent of students now receive federal Pell Grants (a rough approximation of how many are in the bottom half of the nation’s income distribution). In 2005, only 13 percent did. Over the same period, other elite colleges have also been doing more to recruit low- and middle-income students, and they have made some progress.

It is tempting, then, to point to all these changes and proclaim that elite higher education is at long last a meritocracy. But Mr. Marx doesn’t buy it. If anything, he worries, the progress has the potential to distract people from how troubling the situation remains.

When we spoke recently, he mentioned a Georgetown University study of the class of 2010 at the country’s 193 most selective colleges. As entering freshmen, only 15 percent of students came from the bottom half of the income distribution. Sixty-seven percent came from the highest-earning fourth of the distribution. These statistics mean that on many campuses affluent students outnumber middle-class students.

“We claim to be part of the American dream and of a system based on merit and opportunity and talent,” Mr. Marx says. “Yet if at the top places, two-thirds of the students come from the top quartile and only 5 percent come from the bottom quartile, then we are actually part of the problem of the growing economic divide rather than part of the solution.”

I think Amherst has created a model for attracting talented low- and middle-income students that other colleges can copy. It borrows, in part, from the University of California, which is by far the most economically diverse top university system in the country. But before we get to the details, I want to address a question that often comes up in this discussion:

Does more economic diversity necessarily mean lower admissions standards?

No, it does not.

The truth is that many of the most capable low- and middle-income students attend community colleges or less selective four-year colleges close to their home. Doing so makes them less likely to graduate from college at all, research has shown. Incredibly, only 44 percent of low-income high school seniors with high standardized test scores enroll in a four-year college, according to a Century Foundation report — compared with about 50 percent of high-income seniors who have average test scores.

“The extent of wasted human capital,” wrote the report’s authors, Anthony P. Carnevale and Jeff Strohl, “is phenomenal.”

This comparison understates the problem, too, because SAT scores are hardly a pure measure of merit. Well-off students often receive SAT coaching and take the test more than once, Mr. Marx notes, and top colleges reward them for doing both. Colleges also reward students for overseas travel and elaborate community service projects. “Colleges don’t recognize, in the same way, if you work at the neighborhood 7-Eleven to support your family,” he adds.

Several years ago, William Bowen, a former president of Princeton, and two other researchers found that top colleges gave no admissions advantage to low-income students, despite claims to the contrary. Children of alumni received an advantage. Minorities (except Asians) and athletes received an even bigger advantage. But all else equal, a low-income applicant was no more likely to get in than a high-income applicant with the same SAT score. It’s pretty hard to call that meritocracy.

Amherst has shown that building a better meritocracy is possible, by doing, as Mr. Marx says, “everything we can think of.”

The effort starts with financial aid. The college has devoted more of its resources to aid, even if the dining halls don’t end up being as fancy as those at rival colleges. Outright grants have replaced most loans, not just for poor students but for middle-class ones. The college has started a scholarship for low-income foreign students, who don’t qualify for Pell Grants. And Amherst officials visit high schools they had never visited before to spread the word.

The college has also started using its transfer program mostly to admit community college students. This step may be the single easiest way for a college to become more meritocratic. It’s one reason the University of California campuses in Berkeley, Los Angeles and San Diego are so much more diverse than other top colleges.

Many community colleges have horrifically high dropout rates, but the students who succeed there are often inspiring. They include war veterans, single parents and immigrants who have managed to overcome the odds. At Amherst this year, 62 percent of transfer students came from a community college.

Finally, Mr. Marx says Amherst does put a thumb on the scale to give poor students more credit for a given SAT score. Not everyone will love that policy. “Spots at these places are precious,” he notes. But I find it tough to argue that a 1,300 score for most graduates of Phillips Exeter Academy — or most children of Amherst alumni — is as impressive as a 1,250 for someone from McDowell County, W.Va., or the South Bronx.

The result of these changes is that Amherst has a much higher share of low-income students than almost any other elite college. By itself, of course, Amherst is not big enough to influence the American economy. But its policies could affect the economy if more colleges adopted them.

The United States no longer leads the world in educational attainment, partly because so few low-income students — and surprisingly few middle-income students — graduate from four-year colleges. Getting more of these students into the best colleges would make a difference. Many higher-income students would still graduate from college, even if they went to a less elite one. A more educated population, in turn, would probably lift economic growth.

The Amherst model does cost money. And it would be difficult to maintain if Congress cuts the Pell budget, as some members have proposed. But when you add everything up, I think the model isn’t only the fairest one and the right one for the economy. It’s also the best one for the colleges themselves. Attracting the best of the best — not just the best of the affluent — and letting them learn from one another is the whole point of a place like Amherst.

“We did this for educational reasons,” Mr. Marx says. “We aim to be the most diverse college in the country — and the most selective.”