Academic journal article Education Next

Budget Buster: Teachers Sue to Protect Pensions

Academic journal article Education Next

Budget Buster: Teachers Sue to Protect Pensions

Article excerpt

Predictably, cuts in state spending coming with the economic downturn have spurred litigation. New Jersey has been ordered to restore funds for urban schools, while in Florida a class action brought by the state's teachers union seeks to protect state employee pensions from the budget knife, a fresh field of litigation.

New Jersey's supreme court in May restored $500 million in added spending for the state's poor, urban schools, known as the "Abbott districts" (31 out of 591 districts in total), which particularly benefit from nearly 40 years of its constitutional rulings. Otherwise, a divided court left intact school spending cuts in the budget of Republican governor Chris Christie, an outspoken critic of the court, who promised to abide by its decision.

In deciding how to rule, New Jersey's court was guided by earlier decisions on behalf of the Abbott districts, stating, "Like anyone else, the State is not free to walk away from judicial orders enforcing constitutional obligations." We are guessing that other courts that receive petitions asking for restoration of funds will attempt a similar approach and will seek to defend positions staked out on grounds of equity or adequacy, but will avoid picking fresh fights with governors and legislatures if they can.

Budget cutting has precipitated another issue: the pension rights of public employees, among whom are this country's heavily unionized teachers.

In June, the Florida Education Association (FEA), the state's teachers union, filed suit in a circuit court in Tallahassee against the governor and other officials on behalf of the more than 550,000 state employees, among them 140,000 FEA members, who participate in the Florida Retirement System (FRS), charging that changes in the system made by a Republican legislature violated Florida's constitution in three ways: They impaired the employees' contract with the state, took private property without compensation, and impaired the employees' right to bargain collectively.

Participation in the FRS is mandatory for state employees. Underlying the union's complaint were revisions that would take effect on July 1, 2011. Although the FRS was created in 1970 as a contributory system, it had been noncontributory since 1974. The legislature now returned to a contributory plan under which 3 percent of a member's pay would be deducted monthly and credited to an account with the FRS. …

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