Internet resources for what you need to know on NYC Education
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The Topic
"Education" refers to the organization and performance of the public schools and public support institutions established for teaching children from pre-K-12th.
The Context
NYC's public education system is the nation's largest. Over a million pre-Kindergarten through 12th-grade students attend its 1,100-plus schools. The seven-member Board of Education and the Chancellor share custody. Thirty-two separate school districts manage their elementary and middle schools. Run by the superintendents, each district elects its own community school board to set educational policy. High schools report directly to the Board of Ed. There is extraordinary variety across the system: schools of every size and stripe, and at every echelon from first-rate to failing. Less than half of each high school class graduates in four years--and, even with extra time, only 70% of NYC kids can count on a diploma.
The Reporter
Jessica Wolff is a public school parent and Director of Policy Development at the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, a not-for-profit coalition working to reform New York State's education finance system to ensure adequate resources and the opportunity for a sound basic education for all students in New York City.

by Jessica Wolff

The School Funding Victory

(Jan '01) After months of deliberation, Justice Leland DeGrasse of the New York State Supreme Court issued a landmark decision that should dramatically change the way the state funds public education. His ruling in the case, Campaign for Fiscal Equity, Inc. v. the State of New York, invalidated the current system by which New York State distributes school aid on the grounds that it deprives students of the sound basic education that they are guaranteed by the state constitution. DeGrasse gave the state until September 15, 2001, to devise a new costs-based system that accounts for student need and ensures every school in the state has sufficient resources to provide its students the opportunity for an education that will prepare them to be productive citizens.

This historic ruling grew out of an unlikely quest that began nearly eight years ago. Back in 1992, Robert Jackson, a public school parent and community school board member, finally fed up with years of school-budget cuts, sought out his school board's lawyer, Michael A. Rebell. Jackson told Rebell that he wanted to sue New York State for fair funding for the city's schools. Rebell, who had been in education law for years, was reluctant; he worried that bringing such a case was tantamount to tilting at windmills. But Jackson was persistent, and the idea went forward.

Jackson, Rebell, and some other key education activists brought together a coalition of advocacy groups, parent organizations, and community school boards as the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, Inc. (CFE). In 1993, CFE went to court, filing a lawsuit against New York State on behalf of New York City schoolchildren and charging that the state unfairly shortchanged the city's schools. Though the State moved to dismiss the case, in 1995 the New York State Court of Appeals upheld CFE's right to pursue a constitutional challenge to the state's education finance system.

In CFE v. State, CFE held that, for years, New York State has underfunded the public schools in New York City and other high-need areas around the state. As a result, CFE charged, students were denied their constitutional right to a sound basic educationĚ|an education that should provide them with the knowledge and skills needed to vote responsibly, serve on a jury competently, and sustain competitive employment. The suit further charged that the system violated federal antidiscrimination laws because it had "an adverse and disparate impact" on minority students.

The Court of Appeals set out the issues to be addressed in the trial. The first task was the elaboration of the definition of a "sound basic education" - the educational standard to which the state should be held. The next was to prove that schools lacked the resources to provide all students with the opportunity for a sound basic education and that the state education finance system was to blame.

The trial in the case lasted seven months, ending in July 2000. To persuade the court of the need for a new way to fund New York City's schools to assure all children access to a quality education, CFE, with pro bono counsel from the Manhattan-based law firm Simpson, Thacher, and Bartlett, brought together testimony from top education experts from New York and around the country, evidence from cutting-edge research on the entire range of relevant education issues, as well as exhaustive legal research on similar cases elsewhere in the nation.

CFE established that the present funding system does not deliver resources adequate to meet students' needs because it is not set up to do this; the system has no mechanism at all to assess need. Despite being a complex collection of 40 or so disparate formulas and grants purporting to relate to spending, the system no longer distributes education aid on any rational basis. Instead, it serves primarily to support a long-standing political deal that each year allocates to New York City and other parts of the state a set percentage of any increase in state education aid, no matter the actual needs or costs of educating students.

Over the years, the state education aid distribution system has evolved into an overcomplicated hodgepodge of formulas, grants, and adjustments-mostly vestiges of past proposals designed for political gains. Only a very few state education department and legislative insiders understand the system. It certainly is not comprehensible to the average citizen. For this reason, there is no accountability for whether and how it works.

To make matters worse, the crucial annual decisions about how much to budget for state education aid and how much aid to allocate for New York City are, as has long been understood, made in a private deal by "three men in a room." In other words, the governor and legislative leaders negotiate the budget based on political rather than educational needs.

On January 10, 2001, Justice Leland DeGrasse handed down a detailed decision in favor of CFE. He declared the state education finance system unconstitutional and also found that it disproportionately harmed minority students. To remedy these wrongs, DeGrasse ordered the state legislature to reform the current system, guided by the expertise of the Regents, the State Education Department, and the NYC Board of Education. With an eye to avoiding the political wrangling and delays that have hampered similar efforts in other states, DeGrasse warned that the court would intervene if the governor and legislature did not quickly and effectively implement the needed reforms.

He ordered the state to create a new funding system that assesses the actual costs of an adequate education, takes local costs in to account, can be understood by the general public, and includes a system of accountability to measure its own efficacy. As to what should be funded, DeGrasse ordered the state to provide "at least" the following seven essential resources: (1) sufficient numbers of qualified teachers, principals, and other personnel, (2) appropriate class sizes, (3) adequate and accessible facilities, (4) sufficient and up-to-date books, supplies, libraries, technology, and laboratories, (5) suitable curricula, including an expanded platform of programs for at-risk students, (6) adequate resources for students with extraordinary needs; and (7) a safe, orderly environment.

DeGrasse's remedy restores the necessary link between need--that is, the costs associated with providing an adequate education to all New York's students--and the resources devoted to meeting that need. This link has for too long been absent from the way New York State funds public education. In addition to reestablishing the connection between needs and resources, DeGrasse has required the state to implement an accountability plan to ensure that all allocated funds are spent effectively to create the opportunity for all students to meet the constitutional standard for education.

As of this writing, Governor Pataki had not yet decided whether to appeal the case. Editorials have appeared in newspapers statewide urging Pataki to abide by DeGrasse's decision. CFE agrees that an appeal would just delay the inevitable overhaul of a system that Pataki himself has consigned to the "ash heap of history." CFE urges Pataki to waste no time and instead appoint a panel of education funding experts to undertake a costing-out study of the elements of a sound basic education. Many of those most qualified for this task testified at the trial, either for CFE or the state, and are fully prepared to tackle the job immediately.

At the same time, CFE turns its attention to the important issue of accountability. Through our public engagement process this year, CFE will gather New Yorkers' ideas about the best ways to create a comprehensive, effective system of accountability for public education in the state. Currently New York uses a top-down regulatory system that depends heavily on high stakes testing. With Justice DeGrasse's landmark ruling, it is more important than ever to broaden this accountability system to include the state's new obligation to provide adequate resources, schools' duty to create an effective climate for teaching and learning, and the commitment of students, parents, school personnel, and the community at large. These are the essential ingredients for assuring that each school throughout the state has what it needs to provide a meaningful education-to keep, as Justice DeGrasse put it, the "covenant with students, and with society."

Sites For Beginners:

  • NYC Board of Education - By far the easiest way to get information from the Board of Education. Check out this site for NYC public education facts and figures, policy details, and "school report cards" -- annual reports on the performance of each NYC school. Also available is the Chancellor's Plan for School Leadership Teams, the current initiative for bringing parents in as partners in school decision making.
  • NY State Department of Education - Lots of info here about state policies that now drive city reform efforts -- learning standards, assessment requirements and results, universal pre-K, charter schools, registration review and more. The Office of NYC School and Community Services page posts city-specific info. Also available: curriculum resource guides to help teachers and families ensure classwork is aligned with state learning standards.
  • NY State School Boards Association - A good place to check for the status of the state budget and up-to-date information on legislation and legal issues important for public education. Also culls newspapers statewide for school-related articles.
  • Education Week on the Web - Great site for national coverage of education issues. Includes daily digest of education articles from newspapers around the country. "In Context" section decodes jargon and provides background for the week's education news.

Other Recommendations:

  • Campaign for Fiscal Equity - Learn about the coalition successfully filed suit against the New York State to secure adequate resources for a quality education for all NYC public school kids. Skim Justice DeGrasse's decision, read recent editorials from around the state urging Gov. Pataki to do the right thing, and learn about CFE upcoming public engagement events.
  • TeachNet - A resource-filled website from Impact II: The Teachers' Network, which works to help teachers become policymakers in their schools.
  • NYU Institute for Education and Social Policy - Find out about one of the most effective organizations currently studying and working to improve public education in NYC and other US urban areas.
  • National Center for Education Statistics - Comparing schools around the country is difficult, but NCES can help. Download "The Condition of Education, 2000" for performance trends, educational attainment data, and stats on school quality around the U.S. If you're a believer in standardized tests, check out the Nation's Report Card (the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) website).
  • United Federation of Teachers - The teacher's union, never shy about its opinions on current policy issues, maintains a wide-ranging site, including a page for the Emergency Campaign Against Vouchers.
  • New York Times on the Web Forums -- New York City's School System - Missed an article on the schools? You can read it here for free, plus post your own opinion, if you must.

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