New York City schools are failing, says state court

Decision says city and state must provide a 'sound basic education.'

New York State's entire system for funding education is about to be turned upside down. And the ripples could impact the school-reform movement across the country.

In a 4-to-1 decision, New York's highest court ruled the state has a responsibility to provide students with a "meaningful high school education," which it said was indispensable for gainful employment and civic engagement. That overturned an earlier appellate court ruling that found the state was responsible only for providing students with an 8th- or 9th-grade education.

The ruling is a result of a case brought more than a decade ago on behalf of New York City students. The plaintiffs contended the state was failing to provide them with their constitutionally guaranteed rights to a "sound education." Education analysts say the ruling provides a missing link in the current school-reform movement that has required teachers and students to meet higher and higher standards, without necessarily providing them with the necessary funds.

"It says that you can't just demand more for students and teachers - you have to give them the wherewithal to do it," says Jack Jennings, director of the Center on Education Policy, a nonprofit public-school advocacy group in Washington.

In 40 states, parents and education advocates have brought cases challenging the fairness of funding systems. The plaintiffs have been successful in more than two-thirds of them. But with the passage of the federal "No Child Left Behind Act," many states, particularly in rural areas, have complained they've not been given the resources to meet the higher standards required by the new law.

"It's a victory for kids everywhere because New York now sets a standard for the rest of the country," says Samir Ahmed, deputy director of Campaign for Fiscal Equity, a coalition of parents, community groups, and education advocates that was formed to fight this battle.

In reversing the lower court opinion, the State Court of Appeals found that "tens of thousands of students are placed in overcrowded classrooms, taught by unqualified teachers, and provided with inadequate facilities and equipment" and that was enough to consider there is a "systemic failure."

Critics of the current funding system contend that the amount each district is given is decided by "three men in a room," referring to Gov. George Pataki, State Senate leader Joseph Bruno, and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who are seen as ruling their colleagues with an iron hand. That has created a system that Ms. Ahmed says is a product of "political manipulation and not an objective methodology that meets the needs of students."

In its ruling, the court noted the wide discrepancies in state funding. "New York City schools have the most student need in the state and the highest local costs, yet receive some of the lowest per-student funding and have some of the worst results," Chief Judge Judith Kaye wrote for the court.

The court also set a constitutional standard that all children must have a qualified teacher, small classes, and a school building that is safe and accessible, as well as tools for learning that are up-to-date and in adequate supply.

Governor Pataki, who disavowed the 8th-grade standard during his campaign, but continued to fight for it in court once reelected, called it a "historic opportunity" to reform the states education system.

The court gave the city and the state until July 2004 to come up with a new funding formula.

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