Lynn K. Neuner and William T. Russell Jr.
Lynn K. Neuner and William T. Russell Jr. ()

At the end of last month, the Court of Appeals addressed once again the issue of adequate state funding for public education. In the companion cases of Aristy-Farer v. State of New York and New Yorkers for Students’ Educational Rights v. State of New York, the Court of Appeals dismissed plaintiffs’ statewide challenges to the system by which public education is funded in New York, but permitted certain claims to proceed solely to the extent that they relate to circumstances in Syracuse and New York City. This represents the latest round in a series of efforts dating at least as far back as the 1980s by education advocates seeking increased funding for public education in New York.

The New Yorkers for Students’ Educational Rights (NYSER) action was brought by individual parents in a number of school districts and was led by the educational advocacy group NYSER. The Aristy-Farer action was brought by parents of New York City schoolchildren. Both actions were brought against the state of New York, the governor, the Board of Regents and others, and alleged that the state had failed to provide students with a sound basic education as required by the state Constitution’s Education Article.

The NYSER complaint asserted four causes of action: (1) defendants failed to comply with the Court of Appeals’ prior decisions in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) case1 by depriving New York City students of the minimum constitutional level of funding; (2) students statewide are being deprived of a sound basic education as a result of defendants’ various educational budget-cutting measures; (3) defendants violated the Education Article by, inter alia, failing to undertake studies to determine the cost of a sound basic education and failing to ensure an accountability system for measuring academic performance; and (4) defendants failed to provide students statewide with a sound basic education in violation of the Education Article. The Aristy-Farer plaintiffs alleged three claims arising from the state’s withholding of approximately $290 million from the New York City school district as a result of the school district’s failure to implement certain teacher and administrator performance assessments.

Defendants in both actions moved to dismiss and the Supreme Court, New York County, denied the motions. The Appellate Division, First Department, affirmed the decisions as modified. Specifically, the First Department dismissed the NYSER plaintiffs’ third cause of action except to the extent it challenged defendants’ education funding accountability mechanisms but otherwise affirmed the trial court’s decision. The First Department also dismissed two of the Aristy-Farer plaintiffs’ causes of action but allowed to proceed a claim alleging that the state’s withholding of $290 million denied New York City schools funding necessary to provide the constitutionally-mandated sound basic education. The First Department granted defendants in both actions leave to appeal.

In a 5-1 decision written by Judge Rowan Wilson,2 the Court of Appeals dismissed the Aristy-Farer plaintiffs’ remaining cause of action, dismissed the NYSER plaintiffs’ first and second causes of action and allowed the remaining causes of action to proceed only to the extent that they allege claims as to Syracuse and New York City.

The court began by discussing its trilogy of decisions in the CFE case. 86 N.Y.2d 307 (1995) (CFE I); 100 N.Y.2d 893 (2003) (CFE II); 8 N.Y.3d 14 (2006) (CFE III). In those cases, the court held that while the Education Article does not guarantee equality of educational facilities and services throughout the state, it does require the state to ensure that children receive a sound basic education that “prepares them to function productively as civic participants” and “compete for jobs that enable them to support themselves.” CFE II, 100 N.Y.2d at 906, 908. In order to prove a constitutional violation, plaintiffs would need to establish a causal link between the existing funding system and any proven failure to provide a sound basic education. CFE I, 86 N.Y.2d at 318. In its final CFE decision, the Court of Appeals ruled that the obligation to determine the specific amount and allocation of funds was a legislative function and upheld a state commission’s determination that the New York City school district required an additional $1.93 billion in operating funds in order to provide a sound basic education. CFE III, 8 N.Y.3d at 31.

In the instant case, the majority found that, while the NYSER plaintiffs’ third and fourth causes of action stated claims as to the Syracuse and New York City school districts, their specific allegations of deficiencies in those districts did not provide a sufficient basis to infer that all or even most school districts in the state suffer from similar constitutionally-prohibited deficiencies. Accordingly, those claims can proceed only to the extent that they relate to the Syracuse and New York City school districts.

As to the NYSER plaintiffs’ first cause of action which alleged a failure to comply with the Court of Appeals’ decisions in CFE, the court noted that the CFE litigation is concluded and that in CFE III the court determined that $1.93 billion in additional operating aid would satisfy the mandate to provide a sound basic education, but it did not impose any further funding requirements on the state or provide for any injunctive relief. Accordingly, while the rulings in CFE may be useful to plaintiffs as they proceed to litigate their surviving claims, plaintiffs cannot state a claim for noncompliance with the orders issued in the CFE case. The majority further found that plaintiffs’ second cause of action arising out of the state’s failure to comply with funding it had proposed in 2007 as a result of the CFE litigation (and before the 2008 recession) did not state a constitutional violation because the court had never determined that this level of funding (which exceeded $1.93 billion) was constitutionally-mandated. The NYSER plaintiffs’ first and second causes of action were accordingly dismissed.

As to the Aristy-Farer plaintiffs’ remaining claim, the majority dismissed the claim because it lacked the specificity of the NYSER complaint as to deficiencies in the New York City school district and failed to allege any causality between the state’s withholding of $290 million and any failure to provide a sound basic education.

Judge Jenny Rivera issued a decision concurring in part and dissenting in part. She concurred in the dismissal of the Aristy-Farer complaint, but argued that the NYSER plaintiffs had alleged sufficient statewide deficiencies to support all four of their causes of action, even if their allegations as to Syracuse and New York City were more detailed and specific.

The case is not over. The NYSER plaintiffs can proceed with their claims as to Syracuse and New York City. They can also try to bring claims as to other school districts as long as they are supported with specific factual allegations as to those districts. Given the number of rulings in the CFE case and in other educational funding cases, we expect that this is not the last we will hear of the NYSER case.

1. The authors’ firm represented the plaintiffs in the CFE case.

2. Judge Jenny Rivera concurred in part and dissented in part, and Judge Paul Feinman took no part in the decision.