May 2014 - School Finance
May 07, 2014

The funding fight for our schools

Author: By Megan M. Mercy, Esq. - NYSUT Associate Counsel
Source: NYSUT United

Do more with less.

That is the rule today in New York's public education. At a time when curriculum has been abruptly changed and teachers are rated by student test scores, it just is not fair that schools lack adequate funding.

This funding deficit has resulted in massive layoffs, reduced programs and services, increased class sizes, and, most importantly, lost opportunity for students to receive a sound, basic education.

The battle for fair and adequate funding takes place not only in the Legislature, but in the courts, where NYSUT and others are fighting to ensure that all school children receive the educational resources they deserve.

In 1993, the Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) sued, claiming the state was underfunding New York City's public schools and denying those students a sound, basic education, a right guaranteed by Article XI, Section 1 of the New York State Constitution. The courts ruled that the state's school funding system did violate New York City school children's right to a sound, basic education.

After various appeals, in 2006, our state's highest court, the Court of Appeals, explained the state's constitutional obligation to provide essential resources to all public school children. The court also determined that the opportunity for a sound, basic education is defined as a "meaningful high school education, one which prepares them to function productively as civic participants."

In 2007, in response, the Legislature enacted a Foundation Aid Formula designed to ensure adequacy and equity in state school funding. The formula established a relationship between state aid, needs of students and each district's ability to raise revenue. The formula was given a four-year phase-in period. After two years, however, the funding was frozen.

Adding insult to injury, another cut was made to the funding through the Gap Elimination Adjustment (GEA), which is nothing more than a mechanism for the state to balance its budget through the reduction of school aid. This was followed in 2011 by the property tax cap and, this year, by the tax freeze credit, which make it next to impossible for local school districts to increase local revenue for their schools.

Several groups have turned to the courts for help. In 2008, plaintiffs in several small city school districts filed a lawsuit alleging that their districts are so severely underfunded students are being denied the opportunity for a sound, basic education. These districts serve a disproportionately high number of poor students and students with special needs.

After motions to dismiss by the state were denied, the case is expected to go to trial this year. NYSUT attorneys will act as co-counsel at the trial.

In 2013, NYSUT, together with individual teachers, parents and school children, sued to overturn the property tax cap. The tax cap, with its undemocratic supermajority requirement for any budget that exceeds inflation, makes it difficult for districts to supplant state aid shortfalls through local revenue.

The greatest impact is on the poorest school districts and highest need school children. The case, which is being amended to challenge the new tax freeze, is pending in the Albany County Supreme Court.

Earlier this year, New Yorkers for Students' Educational Rights (NYSER) filed suit alleging the state is violating its constitutional obligation to ensure that every school has sufficient funding to provide all students with the opportunity for a sound, basic education, as defined by the Court of Appeals in CFE.

The suit seeks a court decision that will:

(1) provide immediate relief for schools by forcing the state to end unconstitutional practices (such as the GEA and the tax cap) that currently preclude adequate funding for schools; and

(2) order new reforms to the state education law and school financing system to guarantee that now and for the future every school is provided adequate funding and is able to provide all students a meaningful educational opportunity. NYSUT counsel and research staff are providing support for this litigation.

Additionally, the Schenectady and Middletown school districts recently filed a federal civil rights complaint against the state alleging that the state's distribution of funding is inherently inequitable in that it results in less aid to those districts with a high minority population. The complaint is currently pending.

NYSUT is also currently working with the Education Law Center (ELC) and the Alliance for Quality Education (AQE) to identify more underfunded districts with the hope of bringing more challenges to the state's underfunding of school districts, including small, rural districts.

All of these efforts have a common theme: The state has a constitutional obligation to provide and properly fund public education, and it must meet that obligation now.

As Court of Appeals Judge George Bundy Smith poignantly stated in 2003:

"... since education is the most important responsibility of the state, it follows, a priori, that building schools that provide children with a sound education is more important than building jails to incarcerate criminals, shelters to house the homeless, and low income housing for the poor. This order of priorities recognizes that a child who has an opportunity for a sound education is less likely to become a criminal or be homeless."

We couldn't agree more.

Educating our children should be the state's highest priority. Every child in this state deserves the opportunity for a sound, basic education. NYSUT is committed to providing support and resources for the pending lawsuits and will continue to assist in this courageous fight to attain adequate funding for public education.