The story has been changed to better reflect Michael Rebell’s title and affiliation.
ALBANY — The state did not violate New York children’s right to a “sound, basic education” when it slowed and cut funding of state education aid during the recession, an Albany judge ruled this week.
But funding advocates argue the judge’s decision fails to recognize that by cutting funds, the state short-circuited the system it set up to guarantee student needs were met in response to a different court decision a decade ago.
Judge Kimberly A. O’Connor, acting supreme court justice in Albany County, sided with state officials by ruling against plaintiffs in the so-called “Small Cities School” lawsuit. The plaintiffs argued that by cutting funding levels below what was called the Foundation Aid formula – which uses poverty rates, regional costs of living and other factors to determine needed funding levels for school districts – lawmakers were depriving students in small city school districts of the education they were constitutionally entitled to.
In dismissing the plaintiffs’ complaint, O’Connor argued that the Legislature and governor acted within their roles when they decided to cut education funding during lean budget years beginning in 2009. Those cuts, some of which have since been made up in recent years, left districts short of the state aid they would have received if the Foundation Aid formula had been used.
But the level of funding initially laid out by lawmakers in 2007 – $7 billion phased-in over four years – should not be considered a minimum funding level, O’Connor wrote, and successor Legislatures cannot be bound to “fund school aid in the manner enacted that year.”
The “fundamental question,” the judge wrote, is whether the state can change the plan put in place in 2007 by changing the funding levels for school districts “based upon the fluctuation of the State’s fiscal condition, the needs of the school districts, the level of local contribution and federal funding … and still deliver on its obligation to ensure that school children are provided the opportunity for a sound basic education.”
“The answer to that question is yes,” O’Connor wrote in the decision.
The plaintiffs immediately announced they were prepared to appeal the decision and education funding advocates like the Alliance for Quality Education argued the judge had “failed to address the lack of essential resources due to inadequate funding in these schools.” The suit was filed on behalf of students in Niagara Falls, Jamestown, Utica, Kingston, Port Jervis, Poughkeepsie, Newburgh and Mount Vernon school districts.
Michael Rebell, professor of law and educational practice at Teachers College, Columbia University and the plaintiffs’ co-counsel in the landmark Campaign for Fiscal Equity case that defined the “sound basic education” requirement and led to the establishment of the Foundation Aid formula 10 years ago, called O’Connor’s decision “rather shocking” and “radically out of sync” with higher court decisions.
He said the judge’s analysis of the case failed to dig into the evidence of the kind of education students received within the school districts in question and whether funding levels were a factor in lagging student performance.
State lawmakers and the governor have it within their authority to change the way that education funding levels are developed each year, so long as that method aligns with the needs of a “sound basic education”, Rebell argued, but that’s not what the state has done in recent years. The state still uses the Foundation Aid formula to determine what’s needed in districts across the state, and then lawmakers divvy up state aid – sometimes meeting, sometimes falling short of what the formula had come up with.
“Yes, you can reconsider what the needs are after 10 years … but you can’t just say that we will do it by making a political deal,” Rebell said. “That’s exactly what the court said was not appropriate in [the Campaign for Fiscal Equity case]; the state has to sit down and figure out a way to calculate the cost of providing a sound basic education.”
Rebell is representing plaintiffs in a separate case, New Yorkers for Students’ Educational Rights vs. the State of New York, that argues the state is not meeting its constitutional obligation to school children by underfunding districts. He is not directly involved in the Small Cities case.
Schenectady Superintendent Larry Spring, who has made advocating for increased education funding for Schenectady a calling card, said he feels Schenectady students are being deprived of a “sound, basic” education because of how the state funds the district. While the district didn’t join the Small Cities case, Spring has filed a federal civil rights complaint that alleges the state’s education funding is discriminatory.
He echoed Rebell’s argument that the state could change the law if it wanted, but was instead failing to meet the funding established by its own funding formula.
“Does the Legislature have it within its power the ability to change its law and change its formula? Absolutely, they do,” Spring said. “Do they have it within their power to decide that there are portions of students within the state to withhold a sound basic education from? That, I don’t think they do.”
Reach Gazette reporter Zachary Matson at 395-3120, [email protected] or @zacharydmatson on Twitter.