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Published in Print: July 10, 2002, as N.Y. Appeals Court Rebuffs Lower Court's School Aid Ruling

N.Y. Appeals Court Rebuffs Lower Court's School Aid Ruling

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A state appeals court in New York has reversed a landmark school finance decision that had ordered lawmakers to overhaul the state's school funding system.

A panel of the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court in Manhattan ruled 4-1 on June 25 that a trial judge had overreached in his January 2001 ruling that New York's system for financing schools denied students in the 1.1 million- student New York City schools "a sound, basic education."

The ultimate outcome of the case will have implications not only for the city's schools but also for school systems across the state because it will help shape the direction of New York's school funding priorities.

After the trial judge ruled that the school finance system was unconstitutional, some school leaders in New York estimated it could take another $3 billion annually—an amount roughly equal to the state's record aid increase to schools over the past few years—to satisfy the requirements of the ruling.

In the earlier ruling, Justice Leland DeGrasse of the New York Supreme Court, a trial-level court, wrote that the city's schools were plagued by "chronic defunding over the last 20 years," and that students should have access to an education that prepares them for more than simply low-wage jobs.

Students, he added, should be able to function as "civic participants" who can understand concepts such as DNA testing and state ballot initiatives. ("N.Y. System of State Aid Thrown Out," Jan. 17, 2001.)

But writing for the majority in the appellate court's decision last month, Justice Alfred D. Lerner said that while the state must provide a "minimally adequate educational opportunity" for students, Justice DeGrasse had used an "improper standard" in reaching his findings.

The state is not required, Justice Lerner wrote, "to guarantee some higher, largely unspecified level of education, as laudable as that goal might be." He went on to write that high school dropouts could still become productive citizens, and that "society needs workers in all levels of jobs, the majority of which may be very low-level."

The majority also cited the state's argument that only an 8th grade education was needed to understand basic jury instructions, and that reading a newspaper or understanding political messages in campaigns did not require the skill level of a high school graduate.

Moreover, the appellate court ruled, the plaintiffs in the case—a coalition of New York City parents and advocacy groups represented by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity—had "failed to prove that deficiencies in the city's school system are caused by the state's funding system."

In overturning last year's ruling, the majority of appellate-court justices found that the poor socioeconomic backgrounds of many city students, and the mismanagement of resources by school administrators, were more likely than the state's school aid system to adversely affect students' opportunities.

"Although there was evidence that some schools have no science laboratories, music rooms, or gymnasia," Justice Lerner wrote, "there was no proof that these conditions are so pervasive as to constitute a systemwide failure, much less one that was caused by the school financing system, or one that can be cured only by a reformation of that system."

'Temporary Setback'

Michael A. Rebell, the executive director of the New York City-based Campaign for Fiscal Equity, described much of the majority opinion as "callous."

"We are outraged on behalf of hundreds of thousands of New York state students who struggle in overcrowded classrooms with underpaid teachers and empty libraries," Mr. Rebell said in a statement.

Later, in a conference call with reporters, he added: "It's a very limited notion to say the minimum is good enough for these students and we don't have to aim higher."

He called the decision a "temporary setback" and vowed to appeal the decision to the New York Court of Appeals, which is the state's highest court.

Mr. Rebell noted that his coalition of parents and advocacy groups had initially lost its case in 1995, but won last year after the state Court of Appeals recognized the groups' arguments that the state constitution implied the right to a "sound basic education" and federal civil rights laws bar states from spending money in a way that has a discriminatory impact.

The eight-month trial generated volumes of testimony from education experts..

Mr. Rebell praised the dissenting opinion in the June ruling, in which Justice David B. Saxe wrote that the trial court's fundamental conclusions "can only be reversed by ignoring either much of the evidence or the actual circumstances of the city's student population."

But Alfred Lindseth, a senior partner in the New York firm of Sutherland Asbill & Brennan who represented the state in the trial, said the court clearly recognized that lack of money isn't the fundamental problem with the city's schools..

"The total focus is always on more money," Mr. Lindseth said. "No one was paying attention to the root of the problem, which is how local districts run the schools. They ought to be more focused on how the money is spent."

Michael McKeon, a spokesman for Gov. George E. Pataki, said in a statement that since taking office in 1995, the Republican governor has provided a total increase of $2.1 billion in state aid to the New York City schools over that period.

"Governor Pataki has made it clear," he said, "that we will continue to invest in education and continue to fight for more reforms regardless of the outcome of this case, because it is the right thing to do for our children."

Vol. 21, Issue 42, Page 16

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