Law & Courts

Court’s Power at Issue in New York School Aid Case

By David J. Hoff — April 11, 2006 7 min read
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Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. State is the latest school finance case that seems as if it will never end.

Three weeks after winning its latest victory in the courts, the New York City-based legal-advocacy group that represents the plaintiffs is still waiting for the final resolution to the lawsuit, filed in 1993. It seeks additional operating money for schools in the city.

Without a final resolution in sight, participants and observers are saying that the ultimate solution to the case will rely on the politicians who decide how to appropriate money, not the judges who declare whether enough is being spent.

Case History

The Campaign for Fiscal Equity’s school finance case against New York state began more than a decade ago.

    May 1993
  • The CFE, acting on behalf of residents and education advocacy groups, files a lawsuit in state supreme court, a trial-level court, in Manhattan, challenging the constitutionality of the state’s school aid system.

The New York City case is being watched with particular interest because the question of checks and balances—the competing powers vested in each branch of government—is playing itself out in school finance cases throughout the country.

While the state’s legislature has passed a budget that would comply with the court’s order to finance $9.2 billion in construction costs in New York City, the budget would not provide a significant down payment on the $4.7 billion or more in operating aid the state appellate court ordered lawmakers to consider spending to end the lawsuit.

“These issues are profoundly political,” said Martha Derthick, a professor emeritus of politics at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. “Trying to get the court to settle it doesn’t take the politics out of it, it just brings the courts into it.”

But school finance attorneys say that courts still have a significant role to play in prodding—or even compelling—lawmakers to spend money on schools that they otherwise wouldn’t.

“Through litigation, we can compel action,” said James P. Molloy, a Helena, Mont.-based lawyer representing school districts in Montana’s 4-year-old school finance case. “But the action compelled happens in the executive and legislative branches.”

2006 and Beyond

This month alone, lawmakers in two states will consider major changes to their school finance systems in response to orders from their supreme courts.

In Kansas, the legislature will debate later this month school finance bills that would adopt three-year plans to increase the $2.1 billion the state spends on K-12 schools from $480 million to $558 million. The lawmakers are working to comply with a 2005 Kansas supreme court decision saying the legislature should provide enough school financing to ensure students meet the state’s academic standards. (“Kan. Lawmakers Agree on Spending Plan,” July 13, 2005)

In Texas, lawmakers will convene next week in a special session to rewrite the tax code because the state’s highest court declared the statewide property tax unconstitutional.

They won’t need to increase the amount the state spends on schools, though, because the court said in its November decision that Texas schools spend enough to meet constitutional guarantees. (“Texas School Finance Ruling Draws National Attention,” Dec. 7, 2005)

Action Pending

A number of legislatures are also facing court orders to act on school finance cases this year.

State: Kansas
Case: Montoy v. State
Year filed: 2000

Status: Kansas lawmakers will return to Topeka later this month to finish a school finance bill and other business from the regular session. The House passed a bill that would increase K-12 spending by $558 million over three years, and the Senate education committee approved a plan to increase the total by $480.4 million. Both figures are smaller than the $568 million increase the state supreme court declared would be necessary for the 2006-07 school year in a 2005 decision.

State: Montana
Case: Columbia Falls School District v. State
Year filed: 2002

Status: After the state supreme court declared the level of K-12 financing inadequate in a decision last year, the legislature appropriated another $88 million for the 2005-06 school year—a 5.6 percent increase over the original appropriation. In a special session late last year, the legislature added $37 million more for the 2006-07 school year. The case remains under the jurisdiction of the trial court.

State: Texas
Case: Neeley v. West Orange-Cove Consolidated School District
Year filed: 2001

Status: Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, has called a special session to start April 17. Lawmakers will work to comply with a 2005 state supreme court decision declaring that the current finance system creates a statewide property tax, which the Texas Constitution prohibits. The court also held that the legislature had appropriated an adequate amount of money to comply with the state constitution.

State: Wyoming
Case: Campbell v. State
Year filed: 1992

Status: This year, the state re-evaluated its compliance with the state supreme court’s 2001 decision declaring the finance system inadequate. In response, the legislature appropriated $1 billion for schools in the 2006-07 school year, a $200 million increase. The case remains under the jurisdiction of the supreme court.

SOURCE: Education Week

In New York, the issues raised by the CFE case are bound to continue into 2007.

The latest chapter started on March 23 when the state’s appellate court ordered the state legislature to consider adopting a four-year plan to increase operating aid in New York City public schools from $4.7 billion to $5.6 billion.

The court also said the legislature should set up a $9.2 billion building program for the city schools. The court set a deadline of April 1—the first day of the state’s 2007 fiscal year.

The financial amounts were similar to a trial-court judge’s February 2005 order issued after the state failed to meet a July 30, 2004, deadline to fix the financing of New York City schools set by the state’s highest court in a 2003 decision.

While CFE officials declared the March decision a major victory, the court’s order did not include any punitive action if the state failed to comply by the April 1 deadline.

“In the final analysis it is for the governor and the legislature to make the determination as to the constitutionally mandated amount of funding,” Presiding Justice John T. Buckley wrote in the 3-2 decision.

Without a compelling reason to act, however, the lawmakers passed a budget that included the capital funding the court ordered but fell short of the operating aid it suggested.

Gov. George E. Pataki has until this week to sign the budget. He has not decided whether to use his line-item veto on the K-12 figures in the budget, said John Sweeney, a spokesman for the Republican governor.

Lawmakers appropriate the capital spending for a variety of reasons, said state Sen. Steven M. Saland, the chairman of the Senate education committee. The state never seriously contested the CFE’s argument that the city schools need that much money, and New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, a Republican, lobbied hardest for the construction aid, Mr. Saland said.

But the amount of operating aid the district deserves is still a point of contention, he added, because lawmakers don’t want the courts to impinge on their powers to appropriate money—a power explicitly given to the legislature in the state’s constitution.

“While there’s an issue on the merits on what the cost is of a sound basic education,” Mr. Saland said, “we have always believed that this was a matter for the legislature, not the courts.”

In its budget, the legislature appropriated an additional $1.1 billion in statewide K-12 spending—a 7 percent increase for the 2006-07 school year over the current year. New York City would receive a $427 million increase in state aid—a 7 percent increase, according to the New York state education department. The budget would not promise money for future years.

‘Courts Don’t Have Armies’

In the CFE case, the question remains: What actions can and will the courts take to prod the 13-year-old case to a resolution?

The CFE has previously argued that judges can fine the state an amount that the court has decided that New York City’s schools deserve under the state constitution. The trial-court judge has declined to issue those fines.

Michael A. Rebell says plaintiffs may seek a school shutdown if the state doesn't meet court's demands.

The CFE is also considering whether to ask the court to shut down schools if the state doesn’t appropriate that money, a deadline that has been effective in spurring action from state legislatures, said Michael A. Rebell, a counsel to the group.

But courts don’t have the political or executive powers to impose their wills on the legislative and executive branches of government, legal scholars say.

“Courts don’t have armies,” said David Schoenbrod, a professor at the New York Law School and a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, a Washington-based think tank. The most effective courts declare situations that need to be fixed and then “leave the remedy to the political process,” he said.

School finance advocates agree that the ultimate resolution to CFE v. State and cases like it will be completed in the political branches. But they also say that courts have the authority to force politicians to act.

“Courts are … appropriately deferential toward the political branches in affording them the opportunity to find solutions,” said Mr. Molloy, the Montana attorney. “Courts have avoided getting to the point where they have exerted all of their power.”

Solution Ahead?

In New York, Mr. Saland predicted politicians would eventually find a solution. One of the biggest barriers this year are the upcoming elections, in which Democrats are trying to take the Senate majority away from Republicans and voters will choose a successor to Mr. Pataki, who isn’t seeking re-election.

“In order to get a political resolution,” Mr. Saland said, “what’s going to be required is to get past these next elections and hopefully everyone will be willing to come to the table.”

To get there, the CFE will consider its options to get a new court order and continue to lobby the state legislature for the money the group believes the New York City schools deserve.

“Even the New York legislature, with all of its resistance and dysfunction, if you keep the pressure on, the legislature will get the message,” said Mr. Rebell, who was the CFE’s executive director from 1993 until last year. He is now the executive director of the Campaign for Educational Equity, an effort to help eliminate achievement gaps between minority and white students, based at Teachers College, Columbia University.

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A version of this article appeared in the April 12, 2006 edition of Education Week as Court’s Power at Issue in New York School Aid Case

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