A Disappointing Court Ruling on School Finance

Friday, June 30th, 2017 at 7:32 am by

In 2014, the Council of School Superintendents joined New Yorkers for Students’ Educational Rights (NYSER), a coalition bringing a lawsuit alleging that then recent state actions in school finance violated the state constitution’s Education Article, as interpreted in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) decisions issued by the state’s highest court in 1995, 2003, and 2006.

NYSER’s suit argued that, by failing to follow through on the implementation the Foundation Aid formula and other reforms enacted following the final ruling in the CFE case, the state has been denying schoolchildren the opportunity for a sound basic education as promised in its constitution.

On Tuesday, the Court of Appeals, New York’s highest court, ruled the NYSER’s claims that students in New York City and Syracuse are being denied the opportunity for a sound basic education could go to trial and that NYSER could rely upon the CFE decision in its arguments.

But the decision is nonetheless disappointing.

NYSER also sought a determination that,

…In enacting the Budget and Reform Act of 2007, and the Contract for Excellence, the governor and the legislature acknowledged that not only in New York City, but also schools in many other school districts in the State of New York lacked adequate resources to provide their students the opportunity for a sound basic education.

…Although the Budget and Reform Act of 2007 was enacted to remedy these constitutional violations, as a result of the state’s failure to implement the Act and the reductions in state aid to education since 2009, the individual plaintiffs and hundreds of thousands of students in Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, and Yonkers, and in numerous other rural, small city and suburban districts are currently being denied the opportunity for a sound basic education on a systemic basis (NYSER amended complaint, March 28, 2014, pp. 45, 46; emphasis added).

The Court of Appeals ruled, however, that, “…it cannot ordinarily be inferred that deficiencies in funding or educational services in one district are mirrored in another.” The decision adds, “Plaintiffs must plead some facts as to each school district they claim falls below the constitutional minimum (Miriam Aristy-Farer v. State of New York, NYSER v. State of New York, June 27, 2017, p. 12).

This is a disappointing ruling. As Judge Jenny Rivera, the lone dissenter wrote,

…the majority’s holding makes it all but impossible to address constitutional violations other than through burdensome piecemeal litigation. The result will be that meritorious claims will go unfiled, due in part to a lack of litigation resources and the inability of parents and children to wait decades for a possible victory from which they will never benefit directly.

Judge Rivera added,

The Court is “responsible for adjudicating the nature” of the State’s constitutional obligations (CFE I, 86 NY2d at 315). When the Court held in CFE II that the State was required to “ascertain the actual cost of providing a sound basic education” (100 NY2d at 930), that mandate was not limited to the Budget and Reform Act of 2007, it was a constitutional requirement that survives the CFE litigation. The State was not free to attempt compliance and then abandon those efforts. It is for the legislature to determine how to comply with CFE, but compliance is undeniably required.

It is tempting to view fairness as a totally subjective concept, entirely in the eye of the beholder. But here is a simple test of fairness in school finance:  Are school districts and students in similar circumstances being treated similarly?

Any resolution enacted to assure the opportunity for a sound basic education for children in only one or two districts would leave tens of thousands still denied that promise of their state constitution and, lacking the affirmation of a court ruling, perhaps make that inequity harder to set right.

This entry was posted on Friday, June 30th, 2017 at 7:32 am and is filed under Finance, Law. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

Tags: , , ,