Law & Courts

Finance Issues Stir Emotions in N.Y. Case

By Michele McNeil — October 17, 2006 6 min read
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When New York City father Robert Jackson started his crusade to secure more money for his children’s public schools, he had a daughter in 1st grade and another in intermediate school.

Now, 19-year-old Sumaya Jackson is studying dance at the Juilliard School; 26-year-old Asmahan is a teacher at a Buffalo, N.Y., charter school.

Yet their father is still working to get more money for the 1.1 million-student New York City schools—a campaign, now in its 14th year, that last week reached the state’s highest court again in what Mr. Jackson and other parents hope is their final legal plea for more education funding.

A girl pauses to look at photos of elementary students outside Public School 199 in New York City. The photos are part of a campaign to get more state education funding.

In arguments before the New York Court of Appeals, lawyers for the Campaign for Fiscal Equity—which sued on behalf of Mr. Jackson and other parents, students, community leaders, and education advocates—urged the six judges to force the state to come up with at least $4.7 billion in additional funding per year for the city’s public schools. And if the state fails to do so within 90 days, there must be penalties, such as heavy fines, according to CFE lawyers Joseph F. Wayland and Michael A. Rebell, who argued the case before the high court.

They contend that the state has “scorned” and “grossly defied” a Court of Appeals order from 2003, which gave the legislature and the governor 13 months to reform school funding and provide enough money to ensure the city’s public school students have the opportunity for a “sound basic education” as guaranteed by the state constitution. Since then, lower courts have ruled that the state must increase general school operating funds by $4.7 billion to $5.63 billion a year, which could be phased in over four years. The city schools’ annual operating budget now is about $14.5 billion, with about $6 billion coming from the state.

Misdirected Energy?

But more than two years after the deadline passed, the state hasn’t anted up.

“The children in New York City have been shortchanged for decades,” said Mr. Jackson, now a member of the New York City Council and still a plaintiff in the lawsuit that was originally filed in 1993. He made his point in New York’s Harlem, where a school bus load of parents and activists stopped last week as part of a multi-city publicity tour that ended on the courthouse steps here in the state capital.

“We’re entitled to billions more dollars than we’re getting,” he said.

But there are tricky legal issues that have to resolved, such as the exact price tag of a basic education. Also, lawyers are arguing about whether the courts can legally force the state to spend money, or if that would violate the state constitution’s “separation of powers.”

But the state is “moving towards compliance,” Denise A. Hartman, an assistant solicitor general for the New York attorney general’s office, assured the Court of Appeals judges last week.

She pointed to the state’s decision this year to spend $11 billion on school construction projects in New York City and statewide. And she added that the state has spent at least $2.2 billion more a year for New York City schools’ operating budgets since the 2003 decision, though acknowledging that doesn’t account for inflation or growth in enrollment. The city schools have grown by about 100,000 students since the lawsuit was filed 13 years ago.

In that time, courts have held that the state does not provide enough money to give the city’s students the basic literacy and math skills needed to be a citizen—in other words, one who can vote and serve on a jury.

The issue of adequacy and equity in school funding has vexed courts in 45 states at one time or another. Currently, 24 states are in the midst of litigation or working on court-ordered remedies, according to the New York City-based National Access Network, an affiliate of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity that tracks school finance litigation.

But in consuming so much legal and political energy, such lawsuits have actually stymied education reform and put too much emphasis on money as a solution, argues Eric A. Hanushek, a senior fellow for the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, which released a book last week titled Courting Failure: How School Finance Lawsuits Exploit Judges’ Good Intentions and Harm Our Children.

“There’s no doubt the kids in the schools in New York City need help, but that doesn’t justify bad policy,” Mr. Hanushek said in an interview.

In New York, the legal issues could be moot after the November elections. State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, a Democrat, is the odds-on favorite to be elected governor. He has said resolving the finance lawsuit is a top priority.

In his current job as the state’s top legal officer, he must defend the state in the suit. But he pledges that as governor he would comply with court rulings by spending between $4 billion and $6 billion in New York City to boost operating revenues, phased in over four or five years, according to campaign spokeswoman Christine Anderson. Mr. Spitzer also wants to find a statewide solution to New York’s school funding problem, Ms. Anderson said, which could head off demands from other school districts that want more money, too.

‘Shame on You’

For those involved in New York City’s lawsuit, relief can’t come soon enough.

The day of the hearing in Albany, more than 100 parents and public school advocates—representing many parts of New York City, the city of Kingston, and places in between—rallied in a park across from the Court of Appeals.

The geographic diversity reflects that even though the lawsuit deals with New York City, many feel that schools statewide need more funding. Even the judges wondered in their questions whether they’d eventually face a broader, statewide constitutional question about school funding.

Many of the parents blamed state lawmakers, but especially Gov. George E Pataki, for failing to spend enough money on schools and for fighting the court’s order.

Gov. Pataki, a Republican who is retiring after three terms, had the unfortunate timing of being at the state courthouse—for the swearing-in of a new Court of Appeals judge—during last week’s rally. He emerged from a side door, but didn’t escape the crowd’s notice. Parents and activists chased after him, yelling “Shame on you.”

In the class of 2005, at least 9,724 students, or 15 percent of those who had entered as 9th graders, dropped out of New York City high schools. Another 17,000 had to stay on for a fifth year of high school, and are at risk of dropping out, according to the city’s department of education.

On last week’s school bus journey from New York City to Albany, parents and students complained about classrooms so overcrowded students must sit on radiators, and facilities so rundown that buckets to catch water leaks are common. Others had concerns that nearby suburban districts offer music and art classes and laptop computers for students—luxuries many New York City schools can’t afford.

Paul Guido doesn’t want his family’s decision to live in the city to lessen his 20-month-old daughter’s “chance for a great education.”

Fixing disparities in the New York City system, said Mr. Rebell, one of the CFE lawyers, is something “you can’t get for the cheap.”

State officials recognize that, said Ms. Hartman of the state attorney general’s office.

“The state and the city have increased funds substantially as a result of their recognition that New York City needs more funding,” Ms. Hartman said during courtroom arguments.

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A version of this article appeared in the October 18, 2006 edition of Education Week as Finance Issues Stir Emotions In N.Y. Case

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