The Right to Sound Education in the City of New York
Challenge against state school funding system on the basis of the Education Article of the New York Constitution (Article XI § 1). The case addressed a range of issues including, the constitutional right to a sound basic education, adequacy of school funding, budgetary allocations, and the nature of remedies.
In 1993, the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, as well as several students and their parents, filed a complaint asserting that New York State’s educational financing scheme, in violation of the state Constitution, fails to provide public school students in New York City, an opportunity to obtain a sound basic education. Gross underfunding of schools had allegedly led to a scarcity of basic resources, as well as low test scores and graduation rates. In 1995, the highest court of the State of New York, the Court of Appeals, ruled that the Education Article of the New York Constitution guarantees every child a “sound basic education” which consisted of at least the basic literacy, calculating and verbal skills necessary for productive civic engagement. In later proceedings the Court of Appeals clarified that basic education should also cover the skills needed to sustain competitive employment, and acquire higher education. The Court noted that accomplishing this requires minimally adequate physical facilities, and basic learning resources, as well as being taught up-to-date curricula by adequately trained teachers.
Following this decision, the case was remanded to the State Supreme Court to ascertain whether New York State was violating this standard in New York City. In 2001, the challenge came before Justice Leland DeGrasse. He found that the state’s method for funding education violated the Constitution because the education provided to New York City students was so deficient that it fell below the “constitutional floor” set by the Education Article. He held that the state’s actions were a substantial cause of this violation. Instead of prescribing a remedy, he ordered the State to devise and implement necessary reform of the State’s public school financing system. His decision in relation to the Education Article was subsequently upheld in 2003 by the Court of Appeals which issued a tri-partite remedial order that required the State to determine the cost of providing a sound basic education in New York City, reform the current system to ensure adequacy of funding for all schools, and establish a system of accountability to measure whether the reforms actually provide the opportunity for a sound basic education. New York was given until July 30th, 2004 to implement this remedy.
The State failed to meet the enforcement deadline set by the court and this triggered a round of compliance litigation. On 14 February 2005, Justice Leland DeGrasse J, upon receiving a report from a panel of special referees, ordered the state to furnish an additional US$ 5.6 billion in operating expenses and US$ 9.2 billion for facilities to NY City Schools to provide their students the constitutionally protected right to a sound basic education. The legislature adopted a plan to provide the full amount for the facilities funding, however, was unable to come to agreement regarding operational aid. In 2006, upon appeal, the Court of Appeals, ruled that the ‘constitutional floor’ for additional operational costs was 1.93 billion dollars, although the decision urged the state to consider providing a higher amount.
In its 2007 session, the legislature enacted funding changes towards compliance with the court orders. However, in 2009, the State stopped the phase-in of the CFE remedy. Thereafter, during the 2010 and 2011 legislative sessions, the State reversed the remedy entirely. Moreover, legislative enactments were introduced which permanently stymie the funding needed to ensure the sound basic education as interpreted in the CFE case, unless the legislature acts to amend the provisions in question. In related developments, Maisto v. State, filed in 2008, asked the courts to apply the legal principles in CFE to high-poverty small city school districts. In addition, in 2014, plaintiffs filed New Yorkers for Students’ Educational Rights (NYSER) v. State, alleging that the state is neglecting its constitutional obligation to provide the opportunity for a meaningful education to all of its students. These cases are currently ongoing.
There were a number of groups and institutions involved in this case, including, the Campaign for Fiscal Equity(a not-for-profit corporation whose membership consists of community school boards, individual citizens, and a number of parent advocacy organizations), American Civil Liberties Union, New York Civil Liberties Union, the Brennan Center, the Black, Puerto Rican and Hispanic Legislative Caucus, Partnership for New York City Inc., Alliance for Quality Education, as well as others.
This case is significant because of its normative contribution towards further understanding what constitutes a right to education under the state constitution of New York specifically, and how we can understand the ‘acceptability’ component of the right to education more generally (as set out in CESCR General Comment No. 13). Moreover, this case is illustrative of the fact that where government fails to take steps to remedy constitutional violations identified by a court, the court may be required to formulate far-reaching orders with large budgetary implications.
This case is also noteworthy since by “enumerating specific skills students need to pursue economically productive and politically engaged lives,” the decision prescribes standards which exceed the ‘core minimum’ content required for the right to education under international human rights law. This is, however, aligned with evolving international standards such as the definition of ‘basic learning needs’ adopted by the World Declaration on Education. [Cathy Albisa & Jessica Shultz, United States, in, Social Rights Jurisprudence, Cambridge University Press, 2008, p. 243)
In addition, this case brought together a coalition of education advocacy groups, parent organizations, and community school boards to work together towards more equitable funding of New York City schools. The case also shows that a legal victory does not always mean “success,” but can provide invaluable leverage for ongoing advocacy and related litigation efforts.