Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

The school year ended on a high note for the city's 1.1 million public school students. On June 26, in a decision that could have far-reaching effects for the city's schools, the New York Court of Appeals ruled in Campaign for Fiscal Equity, Inc. (CFE) v. the State of New York that every New York public school student is entitled to the opportunity for a meaningful high school education. In the final word in a lawsuit that began in 1993, the state's highest court ordered the state to implement major school funding and accountability reforms to allow students in New York City schools to meet this constitutional standard.

The court's 4-1 decision overturns a lower appellate court's 2002 ruling that the state is obligated only to ensure that students receive an 8th-grade level of education, a ruling that outraged New York City families and educators last summer and became a central issue in the gubernatorial election. The current decision reinstates State Supreme Court Justice Leland DeGrasse's 2001 trial court ruling that all children -- whatever their "socioeconomic deficits" -- are constitutionally entitled to the opportunity for a "sound basic education" that prepares them for competitive employment and for their roles as citizens, and that the state's current funding system fails to meet these requirements.

The Court of Appeals agreed with the trial court that money matters to children's schooling and that additional resources can provide a better educational opportunity for New York City students. It held that city schools must receive sufficient funding to ensure quality teachers, reasonable class sizes, and adequate school facilities and classrooms, including up-to-date libraries and computers.

The nearly 100-page opinion (in pdf format), authored by Chief Judge Judith Kaye, flatly rejected the state's position that poor student performance is caused by socioeconomic conditions rather than the quality of the schools. Justice Kaye writes, "we cannot accept the premise that children come to the New York City school uneducable, unfit to learn."

To remedy the unconstitutional school-funding system, the court gave the governor and the legislature until July 30, 2004, to do the following:

• They must undertake a study to "ascertain the actual cost of providing a sound basic education in New York City."
• The must reform the state's funding formula to ensure necessary resources.
• They must implement a fair accountability system to ensure that students actually receive that opportunity.

The court defined a "sound basic education" as one that includes a meaningful high school education with the skills and knowledge to "function productively as civic participants" in 21st-century society, including being capable and knowledgeable voters and jurors able to sustain employment.

Michael A. Rebell, the executive director and lead attorney of CFE, the coalition of parent organizations, education advocacy groups, and community school boards that brought the lawsuit over ten years ago (where we work, too), called the decision a resounding victory for New York's school children, “a ringing triumph for every child in New York City, New York State, and throughout the nation," Rebell said. "The Court has made clear in no uncertain terms that New York's children are more important than backroom politics. The Court joins the people of New York in agreeing that all children should have a true educational opportunity to succeed in the workplace and in life."

City Council Member Robert Jackson, a co-founder of CFE and the lawsuit's lead plaintiff, said that the decision is a victory for all New Yorkers. It means, he said, that "no one -- not the governor, the legislature, the mayor, or the city council -- can shortchange the children of New York City any longer. It is now mandated that we fund the public education system so that every child can receive an adequate education."

Judges George Bundy Smith, Carmen B. Ciparick, and Albert M. Rosenblatt joined Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye in the majority on the decision. Judge Susan P. Read, a recent appointee of Governor Pataki, was the lone dissenter on the court.

Jessica Wolff, a public school parent, is director of policy development for the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, where Joseph Wardenski also works as senior research analyst.