Gov. Jim Florio this week is expected to answer a lawsuit charging that his shift of $590 million from education reform to property tax relief has left New Jersey schools with an unconstitutional disparity between rich and poor districts.
The Florio administration is required to respond by Friday to the New Jersey Supreme Court lawsuit, the second to be filed against the state by Marilyn J. Morheuser, executive director of the Education Law Center.
Ms. Morheuser asked the court last month to reopen the landmark Abbott v. Burke case, which last year ended in a ruling invalidating the state's system of education finance because it failed to provide students in 28 poor districts with an education comparable to that available in richer districts.
The dispute was temporarily resolved when Gov. Florio, in one of his first major policy initiatives, spearheaded the Quality Education Act to remedy the imbalance. The act raised $1.1 billion through higher income taxes to increase and redistribute state aid.
But the governor's plan, part of a wildly popular $2.8 billion tax increase package last year, generated a storm of protest and anti-tax sentiment. In response, Gov. Florio and the state Legislature agreed in March to scale back the reforms, diverting about $590 million of the new school aid to property tax relief programs.
Ms. Morheuser's new complaint alleges that such backpeddling has left New Jersey with no acceptable method of addressing the disparity the court found in its Abbott v. Burke decision. In fact, she charged, the inequalities between rich and poor districts have worsened.
In preliminary papers filed last month by administration and legislative officials, the state argued that the court should wait at least five years to allow the program time to work before reviewing its effectiveness.
The court rejected that argument, requiring the state attorney general's office to answer the complaint by the end of this month.
Senate President John A. Lynch, D-Middlesex, who sponsored the legislation redirecting education aid into property tax relief, believes Ms. Morheuser's charges are unfounded, according to Dyke Pollit, his spokesman.
"Sen. Lynch believes that we will still reach parity [among the state's school districts] within five years, and he believes that the law should have a chance to work," Mr. Pollit said.
Under the amended legislation, about $360 million of the original $1.1 billion was directly shifted to property tax relief.
In addition, tightened spending caps imposed on districts by the reformed education measure add to the dilution of the original education reforms. When a district reaches its spending cap, any remaining state aid must be used toward cutting property taxes in the district. State officials estimate about $230 million will be diverted to tax relief in this manner.
Mr. Pollit stressed that this $230 million of state aid is still reaching the districts, even though it must be used to cut taxes.
Sen. Lynch also filed papers with the court last month requesting that the Senate be made a defendant in the action. That request was denied, but could still be appealed, Mr. Pollit said.