In a decision that could bring major changes in the way New York state pays for its schools, the state’s highest court has ruled that the current funding system has failed the students of New York City. The court directed the legislature to come up with a fairer approach by next year.
Closing a decade-old lawsuit that policy experts nationwide had followed closely, the 4-1 decision by the New York Court of Appeals overturned a 2002 state appellate court ruling that had disappointed many educators and advocates for greater equity in school finance.
The state constitution’s standard for providing students with a “sound basic education” goes beyond the minimal level recognized in that earlier decision, Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye said for the majority in the June 26 ruling in Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. The State of New York.
“The issue to be resolved by the evidence is whether the state affords New York City schoolchildren the opportunity for a meaningful high school education, one which prepares them to function productively as civic participants,” Judge Kaye wrote. "... [W]e conclude that the Appellate Division erred to the extent that it founded a judgment for defendants upon a much lower, grade-specific level of skills children are guaranteed the chance to achieve.”
Last year, the Appellate Division of the State Supreme Court in Manhattan ruled that while the state must provide a “minimally adequate educational opportunity,” the poor facilities and high dropout rates common in the 1.1 million-student New York City schools could not be viewed as a systemwide failure caused by inadequate state funding. The appellate division said the state was responsible for providing an 8th or 9th grade level of education. (“N.Y. Appeals Court Rebuffs Lower Court’s School Aid Ruling,” July 10, 2002.)
Judge Kaye limited her opinion to the New York City school system. But a concurring opinion by Judge George Bundy Smith urged lawmakers to review the funding for all of New York’s 700-plus school districts.
And the New York high court’s action could also cause ripples beyond the state.
Jay P. Heubert, an associate professor of education at Teachers College, Columbia University, who has written on high-stakes testing and equity issues in the academic-standards movement, said other states should pay attention.
“The bottom line in this decision is that it’s the states’ responsibility to make sure all children are getting an education of sufficiently high quality and have a real opportunity to meet those standards,” he said last week.
“The decision has national significance because all of the states are adopting high standards and accepting the notion that all kids can reach these standards,” he added, “and yet virtually all of the states are much less forthcoming when it comes to putting up the money to get the job done.”
The New York Court of Appeals’ ruling ends a case filed in 1993, when a coalition of parent and advocacy groups represented by the New York City-based Campaign for Fiscal Equity brought the funding suit against the state. The June decision also reinstates much of a 2001 ruling in which a judge of the state supreme court, a trial-level court, found that the city’s schools had been chronically underfunded for decades. That judge had directed the state legislature to address the problem. (“N.Y. System of State Aid Thrown Out,” Jan. 17, 2001.)
While the decision by the state’s highest court did not say how much it would cost to overhaul the funding system, it gave the legislature until July of next year to come up with a plan.
Michael A. Rebell, the executive director of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity and the lead attorney for the plaintiffs, said the ruling presents a historic opportunity to address some of the evidence presented in the trial. Among other things, the evidence showed that the least experienced New York City teachers served the students most in need, often in overcrowded and rundown schools.
“Today’s decision is a ringing triumph for every child in New York City, New York state, and throughout the nation,” Mr. Rebell said.
“It will be a statewide remedy,” he added. “It’s inconceivable it could be anything else.”
Gov. George E. Pataki, whose lawyers had argued against the plaintiffs, nevertheless praised the ruling as a victory for children.
“I think it’s a positive opportunity for us to focus on education, on the classroom, on the teachers, on the kids, and make sure that every single kid gets a good-quality high school education,” the Republican governor told reporters at a press briefing the day of the decision.
The Next Phase
The ruling, Mr. Rebell predicted, will also have implications for other school finance lawsuits in states such as Massachusetts, South Carolina, and Arizona.
Mr. Heubert of Teachers College argued that New York and other states that have set a high bar for student achievement with mandatory graduation tests without spending enough to help students reach that level are doing accountability on the cheap.
“It’s a little like they are trying to get into an adults-only movie paying a children’s price,” he said.
The ticket price is clearly on the minds of New York lawmakers.
Facing a projected $900 million imbalance in a $94 billion budget for fiscal 2004, lawmakers have the daunting challenge of meeting a one- year deadline to come up with a new approach to funding.
Assemblyman Steven Sanders, the Democrat who chairs the education committee in the legislature’s lower house, praised the high court’s ruling.
“The decision comes at a perilous time in terms of the overall funding capabilities of the state,” he said. “There’s nothing more contentious and hard fought than school aid. This is not going to be an easy process ... But the deadline has been given to us, and that is a deadline that has to be met.”