Court rules educational equity lawsuit may go forward but with conditions

by Jay Worona

On Board Online • July 24, 2017

By Jay Worona
Deputy Executive Director and General Counsel

The state's highest court, the Court of Appeals, has issued a mixed ruling in a lawsuit by New Yorkers for Students Educational Rights (NYSER), an educational advocacy group of which NYSSBA is a party. Although the case can proceed to trial, arguments will be limited to how students in two school districts - New York City and Syracuse - have suffered due to underfunding by the state.

In the lawsuit, individual parents of children in a number of school districts assert that the state government has failed to fund public education in a manner which satisfies the state's obligation to provide its students with a sound basic education in accordance with the state constitution.

In a 5-1 decision issued on June 27, the Court of Appeals refused to permit the NYSER plaintiffs the right to proceed to trial alleging deficiencies in all school districts across the state in the absence of specifically alleging how the state's unconstitutional acts have specifically affected the constitutional rights of students in each specific school district.

However, the majority ruled that NYSER's legal papers were sufficient to permit their lawsuit to proceed to trial on behalf of the students in of the cities of New York and Syracuse.

The Court of Appeals reversed, in part, a decision of a mid-level state court which was more favorable to NYSER. That court had ruled that the NYSER plaintiffs could proceed to trial on behalf of all school districts in the state even in the absence of proof of educational inadequacy and inequity for each and every school district in the state.

The NYSER litigation followed on the heels of a tortured two decade-long litigation path of the Campaign for Equity lawsuit, which reached the state's highest court on three occasions.

In CFE, the Court of Appeals held that: "Our state constitution requires the state to offer all children the opportunity of a sound basic education ... [which] should consist of the basic literacy, calculating, and verbal skills necessary to enable children to eventually function productively as civic participants capable of voting and serving on a jury."

In addition, the court ruled: "The sound basic education ... requires the state to afford students with the opportunity for a meaningful high school education, on which prepares them to function productively as civic participants and compete for jobs that enable them to support themselves."

At the same time, the court in CFE ruled that "the state constitution does not guarantee any particular level or amount of state funding, but rather guarantees students the opportunity to achieve a basic level of education."

In terms of a remedy, the court in CFE directed the state to "ascertain the cost of providing sound basic education in New York City." Although CFE only related to the New York City School District, after the court handed down its decision, state leaders acknowledged that they could not "fix" the funding problems of New York City without affecting all of the school districts of the state. As a result, the Legislature enacted its foundation aid formula and created a funding target of $1.93 billion in 2007.

The plaintiffs in NYSER contend that the state has not made good on its promise. An economic recession hit almost immediately after the formula was enacted, and the state indefinitely delayed implementation of its plan to ramp up spending.

In addition, the state enacted its property tax cap legislation, which further eroded the ability of school districts to raise local revenue as well as to impose a state cap on education funding. According to the NYSER plaintiffs, legislative initiatives resulted in denial of students' constitutional rights.

In its June 27 decision in the NYSER litigation, the Court of Appeals determined that allegations of deficiencies in one, several or many school districts will not ordinarily serve as sufficient allegations about others. Indeed, the court found that even after "drawing every inference in favor of the NYSER plaintiffs, it is not possible to infer that all - or even most - school districts in the state fall below the constitutional floor."

The Court of Appeals recognized that the issues in NYSER overlap with those in CFE, but noted "the CFE litigation has ended." That means any inadequacies that continued to exist in terms of educational funding cannot be "enforced" through the NYSER action. So, even though the court previously found students had been denied a sound basic education due to inadequate state funding, the NYSER plaintiffs must cite specific deficiencies and causation for each district participating in the litigation. The court said sufficient allegations exist with respect to New York City and Syracuse, and the suit can continue to hear evidence about how students have fared in those cities.

In addition, the Court of Appeals dismissed part of the NYSER plaintiffs' claim related to the state's withholding of approximately $290 million in 2012 as a penalty for New York City's missing the state-imposed deadline to submit a plan for a state teacher evaluation program known as the Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR).

Attorneys for the NYSER group will meet soon to determine how to best proceed in the future with the case so as to ensure that this legal action will continue to focus its attention and requested relief upon all of the students of the state who are being denied their constitutional rights to a sound basic education.

Judge Jenny Rivera filed a separate opinion which accused the majority of setting up roadblocks to an equitable resolution of claims that may be meritorious but lack a clear legal remedy.

She concurred with part of the majority's holding but strongly dissented regarding the reduction of the number of districts which could be represented by the plaintiffs. She asserted that "our case law neither supports this narrow interpretation of school financing challenges, nor does it require that we adopt a pleading regime exclusively dependent on district specific claims."

She added that "the CFE litigation illustrates the challenges inherent in these cases ... which were litigated for over two decades ... In the interim, generations of children were denied the education guaranteed by our state constitution. Against the tide of this court's prior decisions, the majority's holding makes it all but impossible to address constitutional violations other than through burdensome piecemeal litigation. The result will be that meritorious claims will go unfiled, due in part to a lack of litigation resources and the inability of parents and children to wait decades for a possible victory from which they will never benefit directly."

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