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After seven months of trial, 72 witnesses and more than 4,300 documents, Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE), a coalition of parents, students and educators, have won a ruling that New York City’s public school children are not getting a “sound basic education” as required by the New York State Constitution. But in prescribing a remedy, Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Leland DeGrasse deferred to the New York State Legislature to create and implement reform by Sept. 15, 2001. He ordered the parties to appear before him on June 15 to report on their progress. In a 185-page opinion, DeGrasse concluded that the current public school funding system is unconstitutional, and that the state’s actions are a “substantial cause of this constitutional violation.” The judge also found that the state’s school funding system as reflected in its regulations implementing Title VI of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination in schools receiving federal funds, has an adverse and disparate impact on minority public school children. DeGrasse rejected the state’s claim that since both New York State and New York City spend more per student on education than most other states and large school districts, these expenditures amount to a “sound basic education.” He also disputed the state’s assertion that New York City and the Board of Education are responsible for the failure of the city’s public schools. As to the plaintiffs in Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. The State of New York, Index No. 111070/93, the judge threw out their federal and state equal protection claims, finding they are barred by U.S. Supreme Court and New York Court of Appeals decisions. Wrote DeGrasse: “New York State has over the course of many years consistently violated the Education Article of the State Constitution by failing to provide the opportunity for a sound basic education to New York City public school students. “In addition, the State’s public school financing system has also had an unjustified disparate impact on minority students in violation of federal law,” he wrote. Referring to the current funding system as “parlous” and “deficient,” DeGrasse warned both the Legislature and the governor that if they are not able to create an adequate system, the court will be forced to create one for them. “The court will not hesitate to intervene if it finds that the legislative and/or executive branches fail to devise and implement necessary reform,” he wrote. But DeGrasse did not leave the state completely in the dark about what must be done. He laid out requirements that must be met in order to establish a system that passes constitutional muster, such as having a sufficient number of qualified teachers, appropriate class size, up-to-date books and a safe, orderly environment. CONTINUING LITIGATION The claims made by CFE were initially filed with the court in May 1993. They picked up where a previous education reform case, Board of Education, Levittown Union Free School District v. Nyquist, 57 NY2d 27, left off in 1982. In Levittown, a group of parents and students failed to convince the Court of Appeals that the funding structure violated the State Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause. Although the court in that case disagreed that all school districts should be funded equally, it left the door open for future argument when it held that the state must provide students with an education that meets some basic requirements, or a “sound basic education” as required by the Education Article of the State Constitution. The Education Article states: “The Legislature shall provide for the maintenance and support of a system of free common schools, wherein all the children of this state may be educated.” In the CFE case, DeGrasse said, “Following the distinction between claims based on equality and adequacy set forth in Levittown, this court let stand plaintiffs’ claim that the State’s funding mechanisms cause New York City public school students to receive something less than the sound basic education required by the Education Article of the New York State Constitution.” Both the current claim made by CFE and the previous claim made in Levittown are indicative of a country-wide movement conducted state by state to reform public school education. In his opinion, DeGrasse laid out three theories that have evolved in such cases since the 1960s. At first, plaintiffs argued that the variations in funding based on local property taxes ran afoul of the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution. But the U.S. Supreme Court declined to recognize this theory in 1973 in San Antonio Indep. School District v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 1, which ruled that Texas’ local property tax system used to fund schools did not violate the “rational basis” test of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The next theory applied by advocates of education funding reform was the one used in Levittown: that the school funding structure violates the state’s Equal Protection Clause. That theory was also not successful with appellate courts in some states. The current theory used by CFE relies much less on equality of funding than on the lack of an adequate education; all but one state constitution requires that an adequate education be provided. Courts in South Carolina, Ohio and Massachusetts have found violations of their state’s constitutions based on this argument, according to DeGrasse. Under this theory, the judge explained, “courts are called on to give content to education clauses that are composed of terse generalities.” As a result, the judge concludes, ” … the education provided New York City students is so deficient that it falls below the constitutional floor set by the Education Article of the New York State Constitution.”

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