Is this place crowded or is it just me?

Lunch at New York City's PS 86 begins at 10:30 a.m. In order to accommodate all 2,200 elementary students at this school in a heavily ethnic corner of the Bronx, 500 kids at a time are crammed into a cafeteria built for 230. After lunch, children from 15 classes - which average 33 students each - take turns using two tiny bathrooms that lack soap and paper towels.

The outdated facilities wear on their occupants. "What a strain," says sixth-grade teacher Susan Livingston. To Isabel Colon, a PS 86 parent, one thing is clear: "It wouldn't happen in Scarsdale," a wealthy suburb less than 10 miles away.

City educators hope it won't happen much longer in PS 86 and other overburdened schools, either. This spring, a lengthy list of plaintiffs in a coalition called The Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) is suing New York State. Their complaint: the substandard quality of education offered children in many New York City schools.

The suit comes just as President Clinton is calling once again to spend $4 billion in federal funds over five years to build more schools and reduce overcrowding and class size. And it's a case being watched with particular interest. For one thing, the city has 1.2 million students, and its schools spend about $1,000 less per student than the state average. Estimates of the amount by which city schools are underfunded range from $500 million to more than $1 billion.

Equally important, say advocates of fiscal equity, is the timing. "This case comes at a time when the knowledge base is a lot higher," says David Schiarra, executive director of the Education Law Center in Newark, N.J. "We know a lot more about the impact of class size and school reform."

A winning strategy?

The New York case also follows a strategy that has increasingly proved a winner. Earlier lawsuits dealing with funding inequities sought to prove that unfair differences in educational quality existed. After some early successes, many of the cases tried on this basis faltered because courts, while recognizing local inequities, were reluctant to undermine local control. But the CFE suit will pattern more recent victories that have focused instead on questions of "adequacy."

Suits like CFE's turn to the promise in state constitutions of a basic education for all children. They charge that when funding drops below a certain minimum, the constitutional promise is not being kept.

Rather than comparing district funding levels, plaintiffs are demanding that the state do more in cases where a "basic education" is not available.

Beyond property taxes

Although states have picked up considerably more of the education tab in recent years, most districts still look to their communities -and largely to property taxes - for at least 50 percent of their funding. Several states -including New Jersey, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Ohio -have recently been ordered by their state courts to find ways to even out the resulting inequities.

The nationwide push toward establishing standards offers these cases a big boost, Mr. Schiarra points out. By defining benchmarks, many states have now spelled out specifically what constitutes a basic education -and in the process they've made it easier to prove that some schools are falling short of delivering on that promise.

Since 1989, plaintiffs have prevailed in about two-thirds of the 25 major cases prosecuted on this basis.

My office, the closet

Back at PS 86, David Glickenstein, a science teacher, unlocks the narrow closet he uses as an office. "I don't tell anybody it's an office," he jokes as he swings the door open and gestures at the tightly packed shelves. "They'd turn it into a resource room."

Carolyn Grossbach, who teaches English as a second language at the school, has no classroom and must teach students either sitting on the playground or in the back rows of the auditorium.

"It's hard to give the talented [students] the attention they deserve" under such circumstances, says arts teacher Johanna Grussner.

It's not surprising that schools like PS 86 struggle, says Michael Rebell, attorney for CFE. New York City enrolls 37 percent of the student population in the state, but receives only 34 percent of state aid to schools.

That inequity is compounded, he adds, by the fact that 70 percent of children who live in poverty and 81 percent of those with limited English ability in the state are concentrated in New York City.

The result, Mr. Rebell says, is what he will try to prove in court: that students in underfunded and inadequate facilities like PS 86 are having their constitutional rights violated.

Of course, most states, including New York, have formulas intended to "level up" poorer districts. But over the years such formulas have become increasingly complex and politicized. In New York, says Rebell, a byzantine tangle of 53 subformulas and categorical grants govern the way state money is distributed to school districts.

"For all the fine talk about equalization and student needs, it's really a political negotiation," he says.

Rebell insists that he has no interest in seeing money taken away from affluent districts. "We're not looking to level down wealthy districts, but to level up poor ones."

He envisions either setting a statewide minimum level of per-student spending, or a shift that would require the state to reach the 50 percent level in education funding. (Many states already contribute 50 percent of educational funding, but New York lags behind the average.) The CFE has, in the meantime, set up an in- dependent commission charged with determining the cost of "an adequate, basic education."

But the additional funding will have to come from somewhere, which is why state legislatures tend to view suits like this one with considerable discomfort.

And for those concerned with keeping education in local hands, successful equity lawsuits spell an erosion of local control. Some worry that the effort to improve failing school districts will succeed only in dragging down the ones that work.

"You're doing a Robin Hood if you push this equity thing too far," explains Chris Pipho, a senior fellow at the Education Commission for the States in Denver.

"Some say we're spending more and more on education and getting less for it," he adds, "and that it's largely because of the equity suits."

The view from fourth grade

Fourth-grader Everett Colon might view it differently. He says science is his favorite subject and that he'd like to work as an astronomer one day.

But he was dismayed to report to his class at PS 86 in September and discover he was one of 53 kids being taught in one room. It was two months before the situation was corrected. "There's a lot of noise and lot of people," says Everett of his school. "Sometimes it's hard to concentrate."

Yet clear-cut evidence of progress as a result of these lawsuits remains elusive.

In Kentucky, a suit similar to the one in New York prompted profound change. In 1989, the state Supreme Court declared the entire state educational system to be unconstitutional.

The result has been an overhaul of the state's schools, and a dramatic narrowing of the gap between wealthy and poorer districts both in terms of per-student spending and teacher salaries, funded by property- and sales-tax increases. But widespread gains in student achievement in Kentucky have yet to be demonstrated.

In Arkansas, too -in part due to the efforts of both former Gov. Bill Clinton and his wife, Hillary, in the mid-1980s - disparities in per-student spending from district to district have been largely wiped out. These changes, however, have not been followed by dramatically improved academic performance.

A test of time and patience

Others say the success of such efforts requires considerable time and patience.

Robert Jackson is one of the New York City school parents who was a driving force behind the filing of the CFE case. He recognizes that all three of his children -his youngest is now in seventh grade - may well graduate before there's any substantial gain to city schools from this lawsuit.

But that's all right, says Mr. Jackson. "I'm in this for the long haul, not the short." His children may be listed as plaintiffs, he adds, "but this is for all the 1.2 million children in New York City."

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