Ruling In NY School-Finance Case Aknoeledges Cities Extra Burden

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The argument that big-city school systems should be compensated for ''municipal overburden"--the fiscal strain imposed by disproportionate numbers of elderly, handicapped, and low-income residents--won approval last week from a New York state appeals court.

Ruling in the state's seven-year-old school-finance case, a four-judge panel of the Appellate Court of the State Supreme Court affirmed a lower-court ruling that struck down New York's method of paying for public education.

The finance system is "constitutionally defective," the panel said, because it depends heavily on local property taxes, thus discriminating against children in poor districts.

The state is expected to appeal the decision to the Court of Appeals, New York's highest court.

The New York case, Levittown v. Nyquist, is similar to school-finance suits in other states, in which the plaintiffs have argued that the wealth of a school district should not determine the quality of education offered to residents.

But it was the first case in which cities argued that they are entitled to extra state aid because their special educational and social problems strain the local tax bases.

A similar argument was successfully advanced by the plaintiffs in Maryland's finance-reform case, which is on appeal to the state Supreme Court.

'Municipal Overburden'

In New York, however, the state has argued that large cities choose to provide extra services--thus, that "municipal overburden" is an elective burden.

New York public schools now spend nearly $3,200 per pupil, on the average--more than any other state except Alaska, according to a report released last month by the non-profit Citizens Public Expenditure Survey.

The problem, according to the plaintiffs in6the finance suit, is that there are large disparities in the distribution of the money. Wealthy suburban districts commonly spend $1,300 to $1,400 more per pupil than do poor systems, according to Nancy Gaeta, policy director of the Special Task Force on Equity and Excellence in Education appointed in 1978 by Governor Hugh L. Carey.

Last week's appellate-court decision "unfortunately does not provide any further guidance...on what constitutes compliance," Ms. Gaeta said.

For example, it is not clear whether the same amount must be spent on each pupil if the decision is upheld by the state's highest court, or whether some other measure of equity will have to be developed.

Also, the judges said New York should provide the same proportion of state aid to schools as do other states--but that figure ranges from less than 10 percent in New Hampshire to some 90 percent in Washington. New York now provides approximately 40 percent of public-school costs; the national average is about 48 percent.

Estimates Difficult

Because of these uncertainties, analysts have found it difficult to estimate the amount of additional state aid needed to operate a constitutionally acceptable system. The governor's task force put the cost at approximately $1 billion in an interim report last year; other estimates run as high as $7 billion.

"Even if you raise the state share by $100 per student, that's $300 million, and you've done nothing," Ms. Gaeta said.

The task force is now developing recommendations for changing the finance formula to comply with the court decisions. Its report is to be released by January, in time for the new legislative session, but many observers do not expect the legislature to make substantial changes until the high court has ruled.

"There's a hefty battle ahead, I think," Ms. Gaeta said, "less in the courts and more in the legislature."

Vol. 01, Issue 09

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