By Dave Warner
PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - A New Jersey judge on Tuesday said the state's school budget cuts fail to meet constitutional standards for education, dealing a political blow to Republican Gov. Chris Christie who has slashed education spending by more than $800 million.
The report by Superior Court Judge Peter Doyne said the state's schools would have needed even more money than was cut -- an additional $1.6 billion -- to meet the mandates for education as set out in the state's constitution.
In a 96-page report to the state Supreme Court, Doyne said his job was to determine whether the state had met its constitutional responsibility without regard to the economy.
"It is clear the state has failed to carry its burden," he said. In particular, the judge said cuts have fallen especially hard on at-risk or disadvantaged students.
He found that 36 percent of the state's school districts were inadequately funded, and that 72 percent of at-risk students attend schools in those districts.
He said it was "painfully obvious important support and ancillary programs have been eliminated" in implementing the state's budget cuts.
Facing a yawning budget gap, Christie's administration cut more than $800 million in education funding for fiscal 2011 which ends on July 1.
The state Supreme Court asked Doyne to act as a special master to study the issue. It was not yet clear what the higher court intends to do with the report, although responses from parties involved in it are due in mid-April and any move by the Supreme Court could affect the state's next budget.
"The Supreme Court should at last abandon the failed assumption of the last three decades that more money equals better education, and stop treating our state's fiscal condition as an inconvenient afterthought," Christie's spokesman Michael Drewniak said in a statement.
The court's own rulings have "incontrovertibly contributed to our current fiscal crisis without uniformly improving education," he said.
Steve Baker, a spokesman for the New Jersey Education Association, the teachers' union with which Christie has battled, said the opinion came as no surprise.
The union has been saying "for some time" that the governor had not adequately funded New Jersey's schools, he said.
(Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Jerry Norton)