N.Y. Judge Narrows Claims In Student-Poverty Suit

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A New York state judge issued a ruling this month narrowing the arguments that lawyers may use in moving forward with a class action against the state brought on behalf of poor children in the Rochester, N.Y., public schools.

The lawsuit, filed by the nonprofit Public Interest Law Office of Rochester in September 1998, claims that the state has deprived the plaintiffs—all low- income black and Hispanic students—of their rights under the state constitution to a sound basic education by failing to alleviate concentrations of poverty in the 37,000-student Rochester school district. ("Rochester Students File Class Action Against New York," Oct. 14, 1998.)

It also alleges that state laws governing the construction of low-income housing in the region and residency laws that direct where students attend school discriminate against poor minority students by creating pockets of poverty in the city.

Ninety percent of students in the Rochester school district qualify for free or reduced-price lunches from the federal government.

Judge John J. Ark dismissed the claim that minority students' rights to a sound basic education under the state constitution have been violated, a ruling that lawyers for the plaintiffs have said they will appeal.

The judge permitted the plaintiffs to continue with their claim that the state's housing laws are discriminatory under the state constitution's equal-protection clause and federal civil rights laws because they create a concentration of poor households in the city.

In his Nov. 14 decision, Judge Ark wrote that "the plaintiffs have set forth a compelling case that poverty concentration and racial isolation have affected the education provided minority students in the [Rochester City School District], as in most American, and certainly New York state cities, to be inferior to that in surrounding suburban districts."

Jonathan Feldman, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said those remarks alone were a small victory for his clients. "The court has recognized the disparities in the education [of these students]," he said.

'About Demographics'

The lawsuit, filed in New York Supreme Court in Monroe County, a trial court, pits the plaintiffs against the state, the state board of regents, the regents' chancellor, the state education commissioner, and the education department.

"It's essentially a case about demographics," said Jane A. Conrad, an assistant attorney general for New York state and one of the lawyers handling the case. "It certainly is unique to New York to have plaintiffs arguing that urban children should have school choice without complaining about the quality of the schools they attend.

"They're only arguing that they're never going to have a fair shake," Ms. Conrad said, "unless there are more white, middle-class kids in the room with them."

The state contends that "all children can learn, and your opportunities are not defined by who is sitting at the next desk," she said.

Mr. Feldman said Judge Ark's ruling allows the plaintiffs to press forward with their claim that state residency laws violate minority students' civil rights under federal law. But Ms. Conrad disagreed and said the ruling only permits the plaintiffs to pursue their claim about state housing laws.

Parties from both sides of the dispute were expecting the judge to clarify the matter in a written order sometime last week.

Vol. 20, Issue 13, Page 5

Published in Print: November 29, 2000, as N.Y. Judge Narrows Claims In Student-Poverty Suit
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