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New York’s Court of Appeals Thursday raised the bar in state educational standards, holding for the first time that New Yorkers are constitutionally entitled to the equivalent of a meaningful high school education. In a divided decision, the court said the state is shortchanging New York City students and must take steps to improve the quality of learning opportunities within 13 months. Thursday’s eagerly awaited decision in Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) v. State, concludes that New York state has allowed the city’s public education system to sink below minimum standards, and then raises the benchmark on what is required for a “sound basic education” to a higher plane than the eighth- or ninth-grade level found acceptable by a midlevel court. And — significantly — the court said that meeting the heightened standard would require a new and presumably greater financial commitment from a cash-starved state. But the court stopped short of ordering a specific remedy, or even a statewide response. And while the decision apparently requires more aid to New York City schools, it does not say how much is needed or even how lawmakers can determine if and when they have spent enough to boost the city school system to constitutionally acceptable levels. The court gave the Legislature until July 30, 2004, to implement financing reforms, and hinted that a number of elements — including the educational reforms now under way in the city, the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 and new state regents standards — could all factor into a legislatively crafted remedy. However, it clearly left the details to the Legislature. The court said the Third Branch has “neither the authority, nor the ability, nor the will, to micromanage education funding.” Further, it did not define what a “meaningful high school education” entails. Overall, the court cautiously walked a thin line with a decision that is acutely mindful of the separation of powers doctrine and that attempts to balance constitutional direction and pragmatic guidance without infringing on the discretion of the Legislature to fashion its own response. CFE v. State is one of two major school funding cases decided by the court Thursday. In the other case, Paynter v. State, a 5-1 court ruled against Rochester plaintiffs claiming that city’s school district is failing to provide the constitutionally required “sound basic education.” Paynter relied primarily on a claim of economic segregation, without alleging inadequate funding. The CFE case began in 1993, when a coalition of education advocates and school boards challenged the state’s educational funding scheme. An initial action was dismissed by the Appellate Division, 1st Department. But the Court of Appeals in 1995 ( see 86 NY2d 307) reinstated two claims, directing the trial court to determine whether the state was fulfilling its constitutional mandate by providing “essential skills,” including “basic literacy, calculating and verbal skills necessary to enable children to eventually function productively as civil participants capable of voting and serving on a jury.” In the 1995 case, the court said that the state, by embracing a constitution promising a school system “wherein all the children of this state may be educated,” had assumed the obligation of providing a “sound basic education” — a phrase first used by the court 21 years ago in Levittown v. Nyquist, 57 NY2d 27 (1982). With those directions, Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Leland DeGrasse in January 2001 ordered the state to completely overhaul its educational funding scheme. But the 1st Department reversed, finding that DeGrasse “went too far,” and that New York students are entitled only to the most basic education. Thursday, the Court of Appeals weighed in with a hefty 99-page opinion. “Tens of thousands of students are placed in overcrowded classrooms, taught by unqualified teachers and provided with inadequate facilities and equipment,” Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye wrote for the court. “The number of children in these straits is large enough to represent a systemic failure.” The court said that the standard adopted by the 1st Department — an education providing basic skills at an eighth- or ninth-grade level — is simply inadequate in today’s world. The prevailing opinion was joined by Judges Albert M. Rosenblatt and Carmen Beauchamp Ciparick. Judge Victoria A. Graffeo took no part. “[S]tudents require more than an eighth-grade education to function productively as citizens,” Chief Judge Kaye wrote. “[T]he mandate of the Education Article for a sound basic education should not be pegged to the eighth or ninth grade, or indeed to any particular grade level.” The court said the state is simply not providing New York City schools with the resources to fulfill their mandate. “The political process allocates to city schools a share of state aid that does not bear a perceptible relation to the needs of city students,” the chief judge wrote. Chief Judge Kaye said the state must: � Determine the actual cost of offering a sound basic education within the city; � Ensure that every school in the city has the resources necessary to provide a sound basic education; � Install as part of a new funding scheme a mechanism for accountability to measure whether the reforms have been effective; � Recognize that its ongoing obligation to provide a sound basic education is evolutionary, and that the standards may well change over time. The chief judge expressed hope that the court has learned from the experience of other states, particularly New Jersey, where a relatively vague order 30 years ago has led to three decades of litigation and a slowly emerging consensus on what that state’s education commitment entails. “We trust that fixing a few signposts in the road yet to be traveled by the parties will shorten the already arduous journey and help to achieve the hoped for remedy,” Chief Judge Kaye wrote. Judge George Bundy Smith concurred, but would have ordered more expansive and specific action on the part of the state. He urged the court to address the educational system statewide, and not limit its ruling to New York City. Smith also said the court left too much in the hands of the Legislature, and should have adopted the Regents Learning Standards as the foundation for a sound basic education. He said the state itself has decided that the Learning Standards comprise the minimum necessary to obtain a high school diploma. “While some witnesses described the Learning Standards as ‘high’ and ‘rigorous,’ all the witnesses testified that they represent the minimum students need in order to be productive citizens,” Judge Smith wrote. Judge Susan Phillips Read dissented, castigating the majority for imposing a new standard and then failing to clearly define what it is. “Today the majority defines a ‘sound basic education’ as ‘a meaningful high school education, one which prepares [young people] to function productively as civil participants’,” Read said. “While unimpeachable, what exactly does this supposed refinement of a ‘sound basic education’ mean?” Read accused her colleagues of surrendering judicial process to “sympathy for educational excellence,” leaving only uncertainty in its wake. “In short, the majority has articulated a constitutional standard without any way to measure whether it has been (or may be) met.” Paynter arises from another corner of the state, the Rochester area, where 15 black school children claimed the state failed to recognize that a concentration of poverty in the inner city had allowed educational opportunities to fall below constitutionally acceptable levels. The case was dismissed in a 4-1 opinion by the Appellate Division, 4th Department. Thursday, the Court of Appeals affirmed. Chief Judge Kaye, again writing for the majority, distinguished Paynter from CFE as geographically, procedurally and conceptually distinct. She said the state is not responsible for the demographic composition of every school district, and the plaintiff’s failure here to prove, or even allege, inadequate funding is fatal to the claim. Judge Smith responded with a 44-page dissent to the 12-page majority opinion. He said the plaintiffs “should have the opportunity to show that a racially and socially separate education does not comport with the opportunity of a sound basic education as required” by the Constitution. Smith, who is black and grew up in a segregated community, traced the history of “separate but equal” schools and the legacy of Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954). “If the concentration of poor and minority students, assuming it is true, will necessarily result in schools that do not offer the opportunity of a sound basic education, even with adequate funding, then the State should remedy that problem,” he wrote. Although the ramifications of Thursday’s rulings remain in question, observers agree that the court has established a new, higher standard for basic, constitutionally guaranteed educational opportunities — possibly one of the highest standards in the nation. Additionally, while the CFE ruling was confined to New York City, it will essentially force the Legislature to examine educational funding statewide, attorneys said. Michael A. Rebell of Manhattan, co-counsel for the CFE plaintiffs along with Joseph F. Wayland of Simpson Thacher & Bartlett in Manhattan, said the new standard set by the Court of Appeals is one of the most stringent, if not the most stringent, in the country. He said that standard, which applies statewide, will ultimately lead to better-funded, higher achieving schools from Long Island to Lackawanna. “Technically, the Court indicated that this order applies to the New York City public schools, but as both the concurring and dissenting judges put it, when you put in major changes that affect 38 percent of the students in the state it obviously has a tremendous impact on the whole formula,” Rebell said. Wayland said the court made clear that “poor and minority students are entitled to real education when they get behind school doors. It is not enough to let them in the door. … You have to provide them with decent teachers, decent facilities, decent programs and ensure that there are decent outcomes. Historically, for the state of New York, this case is the equivalent of Brown v. Board of Education, and hopefully it will have the same lasting impact.” The ruling was generally praised. It was applauded by advocates for children and school boards, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and other political leaders. Even those on the losing side, such as New York Gov. George E. Pataki, were not critical of the decision since it acknowledges a problem long recognized by his administration, and then affords the executive and legislative branches the discretion to address that problem as they see fit. “I haven’t had a chance to see the entire decision, but I think it’s positive in the sense that it will allow us to reform education,” Pataki said Thursday in New York City. A transcript of the governor’s comments was provided by his press office. ” I’ve always believed that every kid in this city and every kid in every community across the state should have a quality high school education,” Pataki said. “ So I think it’s a positive opportunity for us to focus on education, on the classroom, on the teachers, on the kids, and make sure that every single kid gets a good quality high school education.” Deputy Solicitor General Daniel Smirlock defended the state in Campaign for Fiscal Equity. James C. Gocker of Trevett Lenweaver & Salzer in Rochester represented the plaintiffs in Paynter, and Assistant Solicitor General Denise A. Hartman defended the state. Daniel J. Moore of Harris Beach in Pittsford represented suburban school districts in Paynter.

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