I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Friday, March 23, 2012

How Conservatives Co-Opt Racial Justice

Yeah, it's a provocative title for a post, I'll admit; but what happened yesterday in New Jersey was awfully provocative.

As Blue Jersey reported, Chris Christie's nominee to the state Supreme Court, Phillip Kwon, was voted down by the Senate Judiciary Committee along party lines. This is a very big deal in the NJ education debate, because Christie has made it clear he wants to overturn the court's ruling that mandated adequate funding for the poorest districts in the state. These are the famous "Abbott Districts," named for the landmark case brought by the Education Law Center. The original ruling has since been superceeded by the School Funding Reform Act (SFRA).

Christie has made no secret that he wants to stack the court with nominees that will overturn SFRA; that would mean a huge cut in school funding for the poorest districts, and big tax cuts for Christie's wealthy base. This is in addition to the changes he has proposed to SFRA, which ELC estimates will be a $400 million cut to at-risk children across the state.

So you can see what's at stake with this nomination: the fate of thousands of poor and limited English proficient (LEP) students rides on these nominations. Which is why this quote from Kwon himself is so stunning:
In one of the first direct questions on the school funding case, state Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-Middlesex) asked Kwon outright: "What discussions have you had about Abbott education funding with the governor or his representatives or outside individuals or groups? And if you have not discussed the issue, is there anything that would give the governor, or anyone else, the impression that you would revisit the case?"
Like to most questions on specific cases, Kwon didn't take the bait and said he had no discussions on Abbott or any other case with Christie or his staff. As for any impression he may have given of revisiting the case, Kwon said: "I don't know how anyone could get that impression from me."

It was a typical exchange, one that came up with Republicans as well. State Sen. Gerald Cardinale (R-Bergen) is the Senate's longest-running critic of the Abbott decisions, at one point supporting a change in the state Constitution to get around them.
He sought to get Kwon's commitment that he would revisit the case, as well as others, in questioning him about the role of judicial precedence
Precedence is a "very important doctrine of jurisprudence," Kwon said. "It is an important doctrine to respect, but it is also not inviolate certainly. If it were, we wouldn't have Brown v. Board of Education." [emphasis mine]
First of all, as a layperson, I find this game prospective judges play with nominating committees to be really stupid. Christie has said he wants a court that will overturn SFRA; now we're all supposed to believe that Kwon's views on it aren't known to Christie or his staff? Give me a break; if they never "spoke," it's only because there is a tacit understanding that's so obvious it doesn't need to be said aloud.

But bringing up Brown is what I find truly amazing. Brown was specifically about the obligations the government has toward the least among us. The only reason little Linda had to cross those railroad tracks each day was that the government hadn't stepped up to provide her with the same opportunities it provided to white children. Brown forced the issue; it was a remedy for the disenfranchised, just like Abbott.

And Abbott, followed by SFRA, has been a remedy that works, no matter what nonsense Christie, his stooges in the statehouse, or the conservative-dominated media tries to sell you. As Linda Darling-Hammond explains, the "achievement gap" in New Jersey has been cut in half during the period that the state has been forced to address funding inequity. Bruce Baker testified in the Lobato (think of it as Abbott gone west) case:
Baker discussed at length the higher cost of educating at-risk students and said when those costs are taken into account, Colorado districts with large numbers of such students are at a noticeable disadvantage. He also said funding gaps can account for 60 percent of achievement gaps in reading and 46 percent of math achievement gaps. [emphasis mine]
Money matters when it comes to schools for poor kids. Christie wants to deny this reality and put judges on the bench who will ignore the evidence. So, the first chance he gets, he puts forward a jurist who invokes Brown, of all things, to make the case that New Jersey's commitment to poor children could be overturned.

I'd say this was unbelievable, but nothing surprises me about Christie or his nominees any more. The depths of his cynicism are equalled only by the brazenness of his acolytes. Kudos to the New Jersey Democrats for standing up to this.

Had they only shown this sort of courage earlier...

ADDING: The best coverage of the hearing was the live tweeting Blue Jersey did. You really should follow them.

ADDING MORE: I said the voting was along party lines. Technically, Brian Stack is a Democrat, and he voted "yes." But in my mind, the guy's a Republican.

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