Education Funding

Rochester Students File Class Action Against New York

By Mary Ann Zehr — October 14, 1998 3 min read
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Poor children in Rochester, N.Y., are suing the state, claiming that its laws are keeping youngsters like them in an urban district without the resources to serve them properly.

Specifically, the class action filed late last month contends that New York’s laws inhibit the 37,200-student Rochester school district’s ability to overcome a concentration of student poverty.

“The request is that the state commissioner be required to develop a plan to ameliorate the effects of the concentration of poverty,” said Bryan Hetherington, the chief counsel for the nonprofit Public Interest Law Office of Rochester and one of the lawyers representing the plaintiffs.

Rochester resident Tamara N. Shields said her daughter, Desirae Morris, is named among the plaintiffs because she is not receiving a good education in the city’s schools.

Ms. Shields, a community college student who earns less than $20,000 a year and lives in her uncle’s apartment with her daughter, said she can’t afford to send Desirae, who is repeating the 2nd grade this year, to a private school or a public school in another district.

“This lawsuit is all about the kids not getting the attention [they need] in the school system--due to money,” Ms. Shields said.

Bill Hirschen, a spokesman for state Commissioner of Education Richard P. Mills and the state department of education, declined to comment on the issues in the case. “We don’t comment on cases that are being investigated,” he said.

The lawsuit, Paynter v. New York, was filed Sept. 29 in a trial court in Monroe County. The plaintiffs--all poor minority children--are pitted against the state, the state board of regents, the regents’ chancellor, the education commissioner, and the education department.

Poverty and Learning

The lawsuit cites studies showing how high concentrations of poverty in districts almost inevitably lead to poor student performance. It points out that 90 percent of students in the Rochester district qualify for federal free or reduced-price lunches, which is the highest percentage among New York’s five largest urban districts.

It also includes statistics comparing the achievement of Rochester students with that of their counterparts in the suburbs. In the 1996-97 school year, for example, fewer than one in five Rochester students passed the state regents’ English and language arts exam, while nearly four out of five students in the suburbs did so. Only 27 percent of freshmen entering the city’s schools in 1993 graduated in 1997; in contrast, 84 percent of the freshmen in neighboring suburban schools graduated.

“The parents who have started this lawsuit are bringing to light an issue that this community has been too slow to acknowledge,” Clifford B. Janey, the superintendent of the Rochester district, said in a statement issued the day the case was filed.

“When the vast majority of children in any school district live in poverty, the sheer number of students who need special attention and support can make it very challenging for the district as a whole to achieve educational success,” Mr. Janey said.

The Rochester lawsuit is modeled after a Connecticut case that argued racial isolation in the Hartford schools violated tenets of the state constitution. In 1996, Connecticut’s highest court agreed.

Three kinds of state laws have kept low-income Rochester children from receiving the “sound basic education” that the New York Constitution guarantees, Mr. Hetherington said.

The state laws that create school district boundaries make it difficult for the Rochester system to merge with any suburban districts or groups of suburban districts to change the mix of low-income families and high-earning families in the system.

A law that requires children to attend school in the district where they reside, unless their parents are able to pay the tuition and transportation costs to send them to another public district, also contributes to an urban concentration of poverty, the lawsuit claims. Finally, the plaintiffs contend that the state housing agency’s reluctance to override zoning restrictions against the construction of low-income housing in the suburbs has contributed to keeping poor people in the city only.

While the plaintiffs assert that state laws contribute to high concentrations of poverty in other large urban districts, their suit does not seek statewide remedies.

“If in fact a local Rochester solution was worked out, we’d be thrilled,” said Mr. Hetherington. “If it worked out to better education statewide, we’d be even more thrilled.”

The state had 30 days to respond to the suit and could ask that the deadline be extended.

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