Rebell still fighting for funding equity

On Board Online • March 26, 2012

By Meghana Godambe
Governmental Relations Representative

School districts that won a court case and have been waiting for more equity in state education funding will have to wait a little longer, according to Michael Rebell, an attorney who has been prominent in the effort since the 1980s.

“We are right back where we started as far as state aid is concerned,” said Rebell, a professor of law and educational practice at Teachers College, current executive director of the Campaign for Educational Equality (CEE)  and former executive director of The Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE). He spoke at CEE’s March 9 conference, “Safeguarding Sound Basic Education in Hard Economic Times,” at NYSSBA’s offices in Latham.

The event attracted a diverse group of 50 stakeholders including Billy Easton of the Alliance for Quality Education, Rick Longhurst of the state PTA, Phil Rumore of the Buffalo Teachers’ Association, Charles Szuberla of State Education Department and Richard Timbs of the Statewide School Finance Consortium. 

In 2003, Rebell, as co-counsel for the plaintiffs, was instrumental in the historic ruling in a case called Campaign for Fiscal Equity, Inc. v. State of New York. The state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, ruled that every student in the state had a right to a sound basic education. The court defined a sound basic education to be a meaningful high school education that prepares students to be capable citizens and competitive workers.

The Legislature had the responsibility to perform a cost analysis and determine how much it would cost to provide a sound basic education. In 2007, based on several cost analyses, the Legislature promised to direct $5 billion to New York City and $4 billion to districts in the rest of the state, phased in over four years.

While the state has not abandoned its promise, it remains unfulfilled largely due to difficult economic times. In addition to frozen and reduced state aid in previous years, the legislature and governor in 2011 tied increases in school aid to growth in personal income taxes.

Constitutional rights are not conditional and cannot be put on hold because of a recession or state budget deficit, said Rebell.  This, he added, is black letter doctrine that has virtually unanimous support.

It is not enough, said Rebell, for the governor to say do more with less. The state has to show districts how to do more with less. Rebell emphasized that he is open to cost-efficiency measures. “Every last dollar is not guaranteed. If you can provide constitutionally required services for less money than the Legislature determined was necessary in 2007, I would go along with that. But, it is the state’s responsibility to show how this is to be done.”

The decision to pursue resolution through litigation has not yet been determined, said Rebell. Legislative resolution would be preferred because of the significant length of time and cost of litigation. However, as time passes without additional state aid, litigation seems more likely.

CEE is trying to document how a sound basic education is not being delivered.  To do this, CEE is studying dozens of schools in New York City to study the impact of resource deficiencies. Staff is looking at schools’ available curriculum, special education services, teacher needs and professional development, and safety.

“We need your perspective to develop an operational definition” for a sound basic education, Rebell said. Participants were divided into four groups and asked during the morning session to consider what is needed to provide a meaningful high school education. Rebell emphasized, “We have to make the case that kids need certain resources to meet Regents learning standards.”

For instance, commissioner’s regulations require that academic intervention services (AIS) be provided to students who require them, yet many eligible students from high needs schools are not receiving the services. Rebell quoted an administrator from a high needs school who described the current situation as “more of a triage situation with present resources.”

During the afternoon session, participants explored what is needed to ensure that districts graduate students who are civic participants. Is it enough for students to take a civics education course? “Young people graduate and they do not vote. Do we need to do more to meet the constitutional requirement? This may require student government or school newspapers.” Rebell said. He questioned  whether  extracurricular activities should be considered a part of a sound basic education. 

Some attendees expressed that the litigation should be initiated and fast-tracked; without it, the Legislature and governor will not take the action necessary to provide districts with the relief they need. Others encouraged their colleagues to describe to legislators what is happening in districts. Describe the programmatic cuts and discuss educational insolvency. We need a “coherent, consistent stance,” said Rebell. 

Back to top