Following is a joint letter from three allies in public education advocacy on how the Maisto court ruling ignores the constitutional standard set in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit.
TO: New York State Editorial Boards
FROM: Bob Biggerstaff, NYS Association of Small Cities School Districts
David Sciarra, Education Law Center
Billy Easton, Alliance for Quality Education
DATE: September 23, 2016
NYS Supreme Court Ruling in Small Cities School Funding Case Ignores Constitutional Standard Set in Campaign for Fiscal Equity
This week the New York State Supreme Court in Albany issued a deeply flawed decision in a closely-watched school funding case:Maisto v. State of New York. Maisto, commonly referred to as the Small Cities Case, involves 80 parents and children from eight small upstate cities who have sued the state for failure to provide students with the constitutionally required "sound basic education." The small cities in question are Mt. Vernon, Utica, Poughkeepsie, Newburgh, Kingston, Port Jervis, Jamestown and Niagara Falls. Since the case began in 2008, more than 35,000 children have left school in these districts with many being denied the opportunity for a sound basic education.
The ruling provided no consideration of the 5000 pages of witness testimony, the 300 trial exhibits or the 21 expert reports provided during the two month trial. Nevertheless, the ruling found that the plaintiffs failed to establish their claim because the State enacted the Foundation Aid formula in 2007. The decision fails, however, to note that the State has not funded that formula and remains $150 million behind for the eight districts. The decision also fails to acknowledge that, in an earlier phase of this case, the Court of Appeals considered this argument in 2012 and rejected it. The decision undoubtedly will be appealed and we are optimistic that, based upon the facts, the plaintiffs will prevail. However, that will take time. The immediate impact of the ruling is that many students in these eight school districts will continue to be deprived of a "sound basic education"—that is, unless the Governor and the Legislature choose to provide the schools with the resources they need.
The Fundamental Standard Set in CFE
The Maisto ruling finds that, "The performance of the children in these school districts is undeniably unacceptable." But the Maistoruling abandons the fundamental method the Court of Appeals used for determining constitutional deficiencies in the landmark Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) lawsuit. In CFE, the Court of Appeals examined the educational "inputs," the resulting "outputs," and whether there is "a causal link between the present funding system and [a] failure to provide a sound basic education." However, theMaisto ruling fails to apply this standard, asserting that "an examination similar to the analysis outlined in CFE regarding inputs, outputs and causal linkage is not required." By doing so the Maisto ruling offers no examination at all of the reams of evidence demonstrating the ways students in these small cities are educationally shortchanged, thus in essence denying the students in these districts their day in court.
Before the case went to trial, the State attempted to have the case thrown out, alleging that the enactment of the Foundation Aid formula rendered the plaintiffs' case moot, because the State fixed the problems; and at the same time rendered the plaintiffs' case unripe, because the full effect of this "fix" had not yet been felt in the districts. The Appellate Division rejected these arguments and the Court of Appeals affirmed that ruling, allowing this case to proceed to trial. In explaining its reasoning, the Appellate Division noted that the plaintiffs were free to prove that even if the Foundation Aid formula were fully funded—which is far from the case—if that level of funding still did not provide adequate inputs to provide students with the opportunity for a constitutionally "sound basic education," they would have proven a constitutional violation. The Appellate Division declared that the plaintiffs' complaint alleged in detail "glaring deficiencies" in educational inputs that deserved to be developed at trial. The court stated that, despite the enactment of the Foundation Aid formula, the plaintiffs had a right to prove the three CFE elements at trial: deficiencies in inputs, deficiencies in outputs and inadequate state funding as a cause of these deficiencies. But the latest Maisto ruling fails to follow the path that the appellate courts delineated when they sent this case down to be tried.
At trial, the plaintiffs brought overwhelming evidence of deficiencies in essential elements ("inputs") in each Maisto district. The plaintiffs demonstrated, and the State did not dispute and in fact acknowledged, that student outcomes in each district were unacceptably inadequate. The plaintiffs also showed that the State was not providing sufficient funding, and as a result the districts were unable to furnish students with the resources they need to learn successfully. Even the State's own district experts acknowledged that had the State funded these districts at a higher level, they would have been able to provide more educational resources to students, and student outcomes would have improved. Thus, even the State's experts acknowledged a causal link. The court did find that student outcomes are "undeniably inadequate," yet the court refused to examine the two other elements of constitutional schools funding case in New York: inputs or the causal link.
The Maisto trial court also ruled that the plaintiffs' claims must fail because effects of the Foundation Aid and other educational reforms cannot be felt yet. This reasoning was rejected by the Appellate Division and Court of Appeals, when they rejected the State's argument that the plaintiffs' claims were unripe.
Looking at the Facts in these Schools
Utica Assemblyman Anthony Brindisi, a former school board member, issued a challenge in response: "I invite anyone to take a tour of Utica schools with me and tell me if they think those children are receiving a sound basic education." Examples from Utica and Poughkeepsie provide a snapshot of the issues:
Utica School District
- 83% of students are classified as economically disadvantaged
- Forced to cut a dramatic 11% of its staff in just one year and a shocking 364 total positions over five years.
- Current number of teachers is simply not enough to address the more than 2100 young English language learners.
- Lacks the resources necessary to restore music courses, to add physical education, or to add more higher-level electives and Advanced Placement courses.
- Lacks the resources to provide a physical education program for elementary school students and academic intervention or enrichment for at-risk students at all levels of school.
- Kindergarten classes were of 30 students or higher.
- 86% of students are classified as economically disadvantaged
- Class sizes around 30
- 25% drop-out rate
- Owing to budget cuts, Poughkeepsie was forced to cut full-day kindergarten and only offer half day kindergarten
- Despite the overwhelming need for extra academic help, Poughkeepsie has inadequate staff to provide academic intervention services at all levels of school
- The lack of nurses, teaching assistants, security officers, psychologists, social workers, and parent and community liaisons has directly contributed to chronic absenteeism, suspension and drop outs.
What are the Implications for New York Students?
The Maisto case will be appealed and we have every confidence that the plaintiffs will prevail based upon the evidence relating to the eight school districts of the causal link that exists between inadequate inputs, unacceptable outputs and insufficient resources. However, the appeal will take time and students don't get a second time around at learning.
Assemblyman Brindisi summed it up well when he said, "It shouldn't take the courts to decide whether the state is meeting its basic obligations."
According to State Education Department data, school districts statewide are still owed $3.9 billion under the Foundation Aid formula. There is nothing stopping the Governor and the Legislature from providing all of this funding to our students without further delay. In fact based upon the Campaign for Fiscal Equity ruling they are constitutionally obliged to provide this funding. This past year the Assembly voted for a multi-year plan to provide the full funding owed to these schools and to all schools around the state. But both the Governor and the Senate Majority opposed this funding. While we are waiting for this appeal, we need the Governor and the Legislature to act now to fulfill the promise to students in high needs schools.