Trial Begins in Suit Challenging New York State's Formula for School Funds



The Campaign for Fiscal Equity, Inc., a not-for-profit corporation, is a coalition of parent organizations, community school boards, concerned citizens and advocacy groups. We seek 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. Our efforts will also help secure the same opportunity for students throughout the state who are not currently receiving a sound basic education.

The Litigation and Its Significance

In 1978, a group of property-poor Long Island school districts, joined by New York City and the other four large urban New York districts, filed Levittown v. Nyquist, a lawsuit challenging the state's education finance system. In its 1982 decision, the Court of Appeals ruled that while substantial inequities in funding did exist, the New York State constitution does not require equal funding for education. The court did note, however, that the state constitution entitles students to a "sound basic education," even though no one in the Levittown case had alleged that students were being denied this right.

This right to a sound basic education is at the center of

CFE v. State of New York. While this lawsuit again seeks to reform the state funding system, it is based on different legal arguments than those used in Levittown. In this new case, CFE asserts that New York State is failing in its constitutional obligation to provide a sound basic education to thousands of its schoolchildren.

In a landmark June 1995 decision, the Court of Appeals -- New York State's highest court -- distinguished its Levittown ruling and upheld CFE's right to pursue a constitutional challenge to the state's education finance system. Writing for a four-person majority, Judge Carmen B. Ciparick concluded that CFE had grounds for a legal claim under Article XI, the Education Article of the New York State Constitution. Judge Howard Levine concurred with the majority but wrote a separate opinion, arguing for a narrow definition of a sound basic education. Judge Richard Simons dissented, and Chief Judge Judith Kaye took no part in the decision.

The Court indicated that if CFE were able to prove that a substantial number of New York City students are being denied the opportunity to obtain a sound basic education, it would act to remedy the situation. Together with Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, the law firm serving as co-counsel in the case on a pro-bono basis, CFE has been engaged in the extensive research, analysis and other legal "discovery" necessary to prepare this case for the trial.

Recently, the Judicial Hearing Officer in the case established cut-off dates for trial discovery and other preparations. These dates have compelled the State to finally stop its delay tactics, accelerate its own discovery, and move this case forward. To do so, the Attorney General's office recently decided not to assign more of its own attorneys to the case, and instead retained an out-of-state law firm, Sutherland Asbill & Brennan from Atlanta, to serve as its co-counsel.

Trial in CFE v. State of New York is now scheduled to begin in New York Supreme Court, New York County on October 12, 1999.

A "Sound Basic Education"

In its 1995 opinion, the Court of Appeals explained in some detail its idea of the sound basic education guaranteed by the state constitution. The Court issued a "template definition" that is more extensive than those used by most other state courts. Rather than simply making the Regents' standards their sole criteria for adequacy, the Court declared that a sound basic education should consist of "the basic literacy, calculating, and verbal skills necessary to enable children to eventually function productively as civic participants capable of voting and serving on a jury." This definition also included a list of essential educational resources that the state is obligated to provide, including adequate physical facilities, up-to-date textbooks and curricula, and a sufficient number of adequately trained teachers. In addition, the Court indicated that it expects the parties to further develop this definition when the case goes to trial. Taking into account the suggestions of its Board of Advisors, the input of participants in Public Engagement Process, and its own research, CFE has developed a more comprehensive definition of the constitutional standard for a "sound basic education," which it will use to develop its case at trial.

A Disparate Racial Effect

The Court of Appeals' decision also allows CFE to go forward with its claim that the state funding shortfall is racially discriminatory. Seventy four percent of the state's minority students attend New York City public schools, and minorities comprise over 80% of the City's overall student body. The Court ruled unanimously that these figures may demonstrate a disparate racial effect and establish a cause of action under the implementing regulations of Title VI of the 1964 federal Civil Rights Act, which prohibits racial or ethnic discrimination in programs that receive federal funds. The state of New York will now be required to provide a "legitimate non-discriminatory reason" why providing fewer resources to children of color does not violate the Civil Rights Act. CFE v. State is the first fiscal equity case in the nation to successfully plead a Title VI racial impact claim.

A Workable Remedy

The Court of Appeals stated that, when the case goes to trial, CFE must "establish a correlation between funding and educational opportunity" -- that is, we must show that more money will make a difference. Not only must we prove that a lack of resources has been a prime reason why many of New York's schoolchildren have not obtained a sound basic education, but that additional funds will bring about demonstrable improvements in student learning. For this reason, CFE is developing reform positions containing strong accountability measures that will assure the court, the legislature and the public-at-large that additional funds for poor and minority students will be spent on effective, responsible programs. In addition, CFE's innovative Public Engagement Process will ensure that a broad array of voices and values is represented by this remedy.

CFE v. State (Decision)