On June 27, 2017, the New York State Court of Appeals issued a ruling in the New Yorkers for Students’ Educational Rights (NYSER) school funding lawsuit. The NYSER case was brought by parents and many statewide and NYC-based education groups who are suing the state due to its continued failure to provide students with a “sound basic education” as required under the New York State Constitution. The New York State Court of Appeals ruling allows the case to go to trial and present evidence regarding specific alleged constitutional violations in New York City and Syracuse. Below, education activist Earline Mensah, a Parent Ambassador, Adelaide Sanford Institute’s (ASI) Parent Leadership Institute, offers her views on school funding.
by Earline Mensah
This ruling is an emphatic call to action for those who value equity in education to rally for fiscal parity in all public schools, where so often a zip code designates a child’s ability to attain a “sound basic education”. We can no longer afford to sit idly back and let a few do the work that we as concerned parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and most importantly, advocates for educational equity must take ownership of.
The legal battles for educational parity have been fought in courts throughout the country on behalf of our most precious asset, our children, and it is unfortunate that so many are unaware of these epic undertakings. The New Yorkers for Students’ Educational Rights (NYSER) school funding lawsuit stems from a group of parents from New York City, who in 1993, under the leadership of former Councilman Robert Jackson and Attorney Michael A. Rebell, launched the Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE), which sued New York State for failing to provide students with the quality education that is their right under the New York State Constitution. This constitutional challenge lasted for 13 years with CFE partnering with other organizations across New York State. In 2006, the New York State Court of Appeals ruled that the state had failed to provide students with the classroom resources necessary to receive a “sound basic education”, a right guaranteed by the New York State Constitution.
In 2007, in response to the CFE lawsuit, the Foundation Aid formula was instituted by the state with a commitment to adding $5.5 billion in basic classroom operating aid over 4 years to all state school districts. The state allocated $2.3 billion to schools in Foundation Aid as the phase-in began, resulting in a much-needed expansion of programs and services at many schools.
During the fiscal crisis in 2009-2012, the state froze funding for the Foundation Aid formula, which has never been fully actualized, the formula calculates the total amount of Foundation Aid the state is obligated to provide for each school district. The Board of Regents currently has calculated $4.3 billion owed statewide. New York City District is owed $1.9 billion.
NYSER vs. State of New York is a lawsuit filed in February 2014 against the State of New York, the governor and other officials on behalf of the state’s public school students. It charges that the state is violating students’ educational rights by neglecting its constitutional obligation to ensure that every school has sufficient funding to provide all students with a “meaningful educational opportunity”. The case is being brought on behalf of a group of plaintiffs that includes 26 individual parents and students from all parts of the state and New Yorkers for Students’ Educational Rights (NYSER), a statewide coalition of stakeholder groups that formed to bring the lawsuit.
NYSER legal counselors are Michael A. Rebell, an internationally known education law scholar, expert on school finance and school funding litigation, and attorneys from Morgan Lewis working on the case are: Douglas T. Schwarz (Partner), Brendan T. Chestnut (Associate), John A. Vassallo III (Associate) and Suzanne A. Farer (Associate). Both Mr. Rebell and the Morgan Lewis firm are representing NYSER and the NYSER plaintiffs on a pro-bono basis.
Once again, this decision can’t go unheeded. We as proponents of equity in education must rally in support of our children to ensure that they are not denied their educational rights under the New York State Constitution to a “meaningful education”, one that includes:
- sufficient numbers of qualified teachers, principals and other personnel;
- suitable and up-to-date curricula, including an expanded platform of programs to help students who are at risk of academic failure;
- adequate resources for students with disabilities and English-language learners; • appropriate class sizes;
- sufficient and up-to-date books, supplies, libraries, educational technology and laboratories;
- a safe and orderly environment;
- adequate and accessible school buildings.
A “meaningful education” must be adequately funded, which is why we as advocates for equity in education should applaud this decision of the New York State Court of Appeals to hear the case of NYSER vs. State of New York. It is regrettable that only two school districts (New York City and Syracuse) have been granted an appeal in the pursuit of fiscal equity as we inherently know that fiscal disparity in education is a statewide and/or country concern.
Perhaps we as a state will follow the lead as recommended by The National Commission on Equity and Excellence in Education which recommends that the states:
(1) Identify and publicly report the teaching staff, programs and services needed to provide a meaningful educational opportunity to all students of every race and income level, including English-language learners and students with disabilities;
(2) Develop systems to ensure that districts and schools effectively and efficiently use all education funding to enable students to achieve state content and performance standards and to meet state constitutional requirements;
(3) Periodically review, develop performance evidence and update their finance systems to respond to changes in academic standards, students’ demographics, program research, costs and other factors relevant to maintaining meaningful educational opportunities;
(4) Create fair funding formulas that ensure that funding is equitable and publicly reported for all public schools in the state and district;
(5) Establish regular state-level data and information systems to provide guidance and feedback to ensure that all students in every school are in fact being provided the opportunity for a “sound basic education”.
Earline Mensah is a recurring writer for Our Time Press.