School Finance Case Draws to Close in N.Y.
Both sides in a lawsuit that could cost the state of New York several billion more dollars in aid to New York City schools agree on this: The city's public education system isn't in the best of shape.
But lawyers for the state and for the coalition of advocacy groups that is suing it clashed over the degree of the problems during closing arguments in a long-running school finance trial here last week.
The state contended that the district, whatever its shortcomings, provides youngsters with the basic education that state law mandates.
By contrast, the coalition, called the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, asserted that the schools fail at the job. To remedy the situation, the coalition wants the state to revamp the education funding mechanism that it claims has deprived largely poor and minority students of the resources they need for a meaningful crack at success.
"The schools provide grossly less than an adequate education," argued Michael A. Rebell, the executive director of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity. "We're asking for sufficient funding for essentials" to provide such an education.
At stake is not only as much as $3 billion more in aid a year above the current $13 billion that the state might have to raise, but the definition of a basic education and its link to the 4-year-old learning standards set by the state board of regents.
A finding for the coalition would, in effect, endorse meeting the standards—as gauged by state tests now being phased in—as the main goal of the state education system. It would also mean that the state would have to make available the resources necessary for the 1.1 million-student district to meet the standards.
Adequacy vs. Equity
Such a ruling would put New York among about 15 other states that have been ordered by courts over the past decade to provide more money for districts, such as New York City, with a high proportion of poor children, on the grounds that the education they receive has been inadequate. That concept contrasts with an earlier generation of school finance suits that turned on whether spending per pupil across districts was roughly equal.
The lawsuit—filed in the state supreme court here, a trial-level court—was five years in preparation. The trial itself has so far run more than six months, with dozens of expert witnesses, including some of the top names in education research. The state hired an Atlanta law firm experienced in fighting court-ordered desegregation to help with its defense. A decision is expected in the fall.
Last Thursday, Justice Leland DeGrasse listened to six hours of closing arguments in a courtroom that by the afternoon was filled with Campaign for Fiscal Equity supporters. The passions beneath the surface broke through just once, when city Schools Chancellor Harold O. Levy charged angrily out the door of the courtroom. A lawyer for the state had implied that remarks Mr. Levy and his predecessor had made in praise of their school district meant New York City didn't need the additional funds.
In fact, the arguments appeared somewhat topsy-turvy, as the state lauded the achievements of New York City's schools, while the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, with close ties to the district, painted a picture of decay and ignorance.
Earlier in the trial, top state education officials had boosted the coalition's case against New York by insisting that poor and minority students should be meeting the statewide standards just as much as advantaged students but need more resources to do so.
At the National Norm?
Speaking for the state, Martin Bienstock, an assistant attorney general, argued during the July 27 proceedings that the New York City schools have had more than enough resources to offer a "sound basic education" as prescribed by the state's highest court in 1995 when it ruled that the Campaign for Fiscal Equity's suit could proceed through the lower courts.
In part, he said, that was due to the commitment of the state, which has in recent years increased both the share of the budget that goes to education and the share of the education budget that goes to New York City.
Moreover, Mr. Bienstock said, national tests show that the city's 6th graders are performing at the national norm, while state tests indicate that the district's students in general do no worse than students elsewhere in the state who are equally poor or whose first language is not English.
Moreover, Mr. Bienstock maintained, New York City has high-quality teachers and adequate school buildings.
If the achievement of the city's students is not optimal, he concluded, the public should look to a corrupt and inefficient district bureaucracy that puts the interests of adults over those of children, or to a city that cuts taxes and builds sports facilities in preference to raising teacher salaries.
"It's not the state finance system at fault," the lawyer declared. "It's the choices made by city officials."
For its part, the coalition accused the state of portraying a "make believe" world of schools that work.
Joseph F. Wayland of Simpson Thatcher & Bartlett, a New York City law firm that is representing the plaintiffs for free, cited a 40 percent dropout rate for high school students and state test scores that show one-third of elementary students are functionally illiterate.
He argued further that long-term underfunding by a school finance system that compensates districts for a relative lack of wealth but not for a preponderance of poor children who do not speak English at home had hamstrung the schools.
Short on competent teachers and money for remedial programs, and lacking libraries and science laboratories, administrators constantly practice "educational triage," leaving most children shortchanged, Mr. Wayland charged.
"What we found was not new," he said. "We confirmed there were grossly inadequate resources and unconscionable outcomes."
Mr. Wayland disputed the claim that mismanagement and corruption were at the root of the problem, calling that view either "flat-out wrong or old news."
The coalition also asked the judge to expand the legal definition of a "sound basic education" to include not only the preparation that would enable students to vote and serve on a jury, as specifically cited in the 1995 ruling, but also to keep a job in a competitive market.
Vol. 19, Issue 43, Page 23Published in Print: August 2, 2000, as School Finance Case Draws to Close in N.Y.