N.Y. in Throes Of Distinctive State Aid Trial

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A school finance trial, now underway after almost five years preparation, is raising the prospect that New York state might eventually be forced to spend hundreds of millions of dollars more on city schools.

The trial, entering its 10th week in a New York City courtroom, also throws into sharp relief competing explanations for why the students in the nation's largest district learn less on average than their suburban counterparts.

"It brings to the surface the fact that America's real educational problem is in the cities," said James W. Guthrie, a school finance expert who expects to testify in the trial. "Symbolically, [the case] is very important."

Since Oct. 12, Justice Leland DeGrasse of the State Supreme Court for New York County, the trial-level court, has been hearing the lawsuit brought by a coalition of advocacy groups charging that New York City schoolchildren are shortchanged in state aid. As a result, the suit says, students are not given the opportunity for the "sound basic" education guaranteed in the state constitution.

The coalition, the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, also contends that the aid formula discriminates against black and Hispanic students, who make up more than 80 percent of the city's students, and almost three-quarters of all black and Hispanic students in the state. Because of those patterns, such students are disproportionately affected by the lower-than-average spending, the group says.

If the state loses the case, it will be forced to revamp the aid formula. The most obvious alternatives would be to shift money from suburban and rural districts to urban ones—almost a political impossibility—or to raise taxes to add perhaps $2 billion or $3 billion annually to the aid pot, now about $12 billion. In either case, the state would almost certainly have to shoulder a larger share of the costs of running schools than its current 39 percent.

Long-Running Effort

With such high stakes, it is no surprise that New York City school officials, the city teachers' union, the black and Puerto Rican caucuses of the state legislature, and, in a limited fashion, the U.S. Department of Justice have weighed in—all with support—or that each side has assembled a clutch of experts to bolster its case.

Although the suit names only the New York City schools, a win would affect all of New York's major cities because their schoolchildren are underperforming similarly.

The opening of the trial marked a new chapter in the fiscal-equity coalition's battle to win more funding from the state. Four years ago, the group lost its then 2-year-old case for greater equity in school financing. On appeal, however, the state's highest court left the door open for the current effort by recognizing two of the group's arguments: The state constitution implies the right to a "sound basic education," and federal civil rights law prohibits states from spending money in a way that has a discriminatory impact.

The Justice Department has filed an unusual brief with the court saying that the facts laid out in the suit, if true, would constitute discrimination.

The New York City district, with its 1.1 million students, enrolls about 37 percent of the state's public schoolchildren and receives around 35 percent of the education aid, the plaintiffs say. Given the high proportions of poor children and of students who speak English as a second language in the city schools, as well as district wealth—factors the aid formula takes into account—the city should be receiving more than its proportional share of aid, not less, the plaintiffs argue.

That is especially true, the coalition asserts, because the education that children are receiving is not constitutionally adequate, defined in the 1995 state high court ruling as "the basic literacy, calculating, and verbal skills necessary to eventually function productively as civic participants capable of voting and serving on a jury."

The group argues further that the results of the first rounds of the state's new tests, which include five exams that high school students must pass before graduating, have shown that city students are woefully short of meeting the state's own standards for an adequate education.

"What our case stands for nationally," said Michael A. Rebell, the lawyer who heads the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, "is that it's the first case to link standards reform to adequacy."

'A Lot To Answer For'

But the state has denied such a link. "Our duty is not to make sure the test scores in Brooklyn are the same as in Chappequa," said Robert M. Blum, an assistant state attorney general who is overseeing the state's defense. "It is to make funds available so a local school board can provide a sound basic education."

The state argues that the roughly $9,000 per year spent on a New York City child's education, though several hundred dollars short of what is spent in wealthier suburban districts, should be enough to pay for an adequate education. If it does not, the district has either used its resources ineffectively or the city has chosen not to use additional resources available to it, according to the state.

"The blunt fact of the matter is that the board of education and the city of New York have a lot to answer for here," Mr. Blum said. "The city is operating at a huge surplus, and the state of New York has steadily increased funding to the New York schools."

The argument over the role of standards in determining adequacy has already had the effect of pitting New York state's top education officials against the state's own case. Richard P. Mills, the state education commissioner, and Carl T. Hayden, the chancellor of the board of regents, testified in October that city schools did not have enough money to meet state standards, which the officials said they regarded as critical to an adequate education.

Meanwhile, lawyers for the state have called the standards "aspirational"—a tool to help schools improve.

"The education department provided [the coalition] with a key plank in its case," said William D. Duncombe, a professor of public administration at Syracuse University."They are on record as saying [the standards] are what students need."

How Much Is Enough?

While the role of academic standards in the New York case may break new ground, in other senses the suit reflects legal actions around the country. Increasingly, those pushing for a change in aid formulas have argued that districts should get enough state aid to provide students with a good chance for an adequate education. Of course, that leaves open the question of how much is enough.

Lawyers for the coalition suggest that the city system should have the resources to raise the quality of its teacher corps much closer to the mark set by the surrounding suburban districts.

They have painted a gloomy statistical picture of the discrepancy. About 47 percent of city mathematics teachers have failed the teacher-certification test in their subject at least once, for instance, compared with about 21 percent among mathematics teachers in the surrounding suburbs. On the certification test of teaching skills for elementary school, almost 27 percent of city teachers flunked, but just 4 percent of suburban teachers.

The teachers who performed best on the certification exams were more likely to seek jobs in the suburbs, where pay is as much as 25 percent higher.

There are many approaches to determining the cost of an adequate education. One would be to look at how much it would take to bring the performance of city students up to the state average, Mr. Duncombe of Syracuse said. He estimates that strategy would require at least a doubling of the city's resources.

But Mr. Guthrie, a professor of education and public policy at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., disagrees. "This system can't work," he contended. "It's just too big to be efficient or productive."

In fact, city schools have received substantial increases in recent years and are likely to continue to do so, as the state raises the $12 billion state education budget by about a billion dollars a year, said Assemblyman Steven Sanders, the chairman of the education committee in that legislative chamber.

The Democrat said that whatever the outcome of the suit, the legislature was likely to keep adjusting the formula as well as take up the question of whether there was a basic level of support every school district should be able to expect. "Unless the court requires us to do it quickly," he said, "it will probably be a discussion lasting several years."

Vol. 19, Issue 16, Pages 19, 21

Published in Print: December 15, 1999, as N.Y. in Throes Of Distinctive State Aid Trial
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