State budgets this year face huge rev enue losses, thanks to the recession and the end of federal stimulus money. Each threatened interest group has mobilized to try to escape any impact but none as effectively as schools, which have a special weapon: the courts.
The argument in the courts -- playing out now in New Jersey and likely soon in New York -- is simple: The state Constitution protects us from taking any share of the pain of the fiscal calamity.
The common line is that, because of budget pressures, class sizes will rise to the extent that learning is virtually impossible. In reality, until this year, class sizes across America have fallen for the last 15 years, to new lows. This ploy is simply part of the political bargaining that is designed to separate schools from any budget problem.
Indeed, school spending in America has risen continuously for over a century, with the one exception of a slight fall during the Great Depression of the 1930s.
But recent fiscal pressures have started to take their toll. In New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie had the audacity to cut state funding for schools, reductions that amounted to some 5 percent of total school spending, with the most disadvantaged districts being shielded from the brunt of the cuts. In New York, Gov. Cuomo and the Legislature just enacted a budget that also has modest year-over-year reductions in state aid to schools -- and that also reneges on school-spending increases promised in years past.
Having lost in the media and the political bargaining, New Jersey schools turned to the courts. Garden State judges have ruled over school finance for 40 years, and the schools -- especially the highest-poverty schools -- have had a friend in court, being allowed to spend virtually whatever they want.
In 2008, the latest year for which data are available, New Jersey was the highest-spending state in the nation, with per-pupil expenditures 70 percent above the national average. The poor districts (known as "Abbott districts" after a long-running court case) spend some 2½ times the national average.
Faced with a 5 percent cut, the schools went back to the courts to describe the hardships that would result, claiming the state Constitution's educational guarantees would be violated by the lower funding.
Accompanying these claims have been news stories suggesting that class sizes might reach 40 or even, in some places, 60 students. Perspective is needed: The 5 percent cut could be accomplished by allowing pupil-teacher ratios to rise by just one student per teacher -- a change that's virtually unnoticeable by most teachers.