A pair of Schenectady parents have joined a statewide lawsuit alleging education funding levels are depriving their kids of their constitutional right to a “sound basic education.”
Jamaica Miles and Janelle Hooks, both raised in Schenectady and the parents of Schenectady students, emerged in an amended complaint filed last month as among a handful of parents across the state aiming to force big changes in how the state funds its schools.
“As a result of the state’s failures, students in the school districts [of plaintiff parents] are being deprived of the knowledge, skills, experiences and values necessary to function productively as civic participants and be prepared for competitive employment,” the complaint argues.
The complaint alleges the state’s failure to implement its own school funding formula, called foundation aid, has deprived school districts the resources needed to provide students the basic education they are guaranteed under the state constitution. That formula is short about $4 billion, according to the state Education Department. Schenectady schools receive about $40 million less than what the formula calculates the district should get.
The suit, which originated with parents in New York City and Syracuse schools, expanded after the Court of Appeals shot down an attempt to use those two districts as the basis for a broader statewide argument that schools were short-changed last year.
In June, the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, ruled that plaintiffs needed to make claims with “district specificity” and present evidence from “each school district they claim falls below the constitutional minimum” level of state funding.
So the lawyers and advocates who have been pressing school funding cases for well over a decade returned in December with an amended complaint that included parents from three new districts: Schenectady, Central Islip in Suffolk County and Gouverneur in St. Lawrence County. The new complaint was filed in a New York City division of the State Supreme Court, where the case is based.
The two Schenectady parents now at the center of the case struck different postures last week when asked about joining the suit.
Miles, a local activist regularly present at rallies, protests and press conferences on school funding issues, said she was asked to help find parents in the district that would be willing to sign onto the lawsuit. After some thought, she said, it dawned on her. Why didn’t she join the suit?
“Is there a reason it shouldn’t be me?” she said. “Because I absolutely want to sue the state.”
While Hooks didn’t want to speak about the lawsuit when reached last week, she did outline some of her views of the district and its challenges when she ran for school board in the spring. At the time, she said that while Schenectady High School offered a wide range of programs and activities, similar offerings were lacking in the elementary and middle schools. She also said the district needs more teachers to lower class sizes, as well as hall monitors and security guards. Hooks spent over two years as an instructional paraprofessional at Paige Elementary. She has a freshman and junior at the high school.
“I’ve always wanted to help kids in Schenectady,” Hooks said during the school board election. “I’m from here, I’ve seen the problems.”
Miles spoke openly about her experiences in Schenectady schools, first as a student and then as a parent. Her oldest daughter, Oriana Miles, graduated from high school in 2013 and attended New York University, where she studied education and is now finishing a master’s degree. Her son, Ilias, is in seventh grade at Oneida Middle School and her daughter, Malia, is a first-grader at Zoller Elementary.
For each one of her kids, she detailed examples of when she felt the resources provided in school were inadequate — fundraisers for field trips and classroom technology she felt should have been in place already; books that can’t go home because there aren’t enough copies for every student; a high school schedule overhaul that resulted in fewer class options.
Miles said when Ilias was in elementary school, he spent time with a reading specialist in small groups. But as soon as he had nearly caught up to the grade level he was in, he was moved out of the extra service.
“The answer I was given for why he couldn’t have supports was there are so many kids in worse shape,” Miles said.
Miles said she plans to stay in Schenectady for her youngest child, too — 7-month-old Roman. He’ll be a part of the Class of 2035, she said.
Showing off pieces of art she made in school, first-grader Malia interjected with her own thoughts about school.
“They provide me with good learning,” Malia said. “Even though I’m in first grade, I’ve already learned 100 plus 100 is 200, 100 plus 10 is 110 and 100 plus 17 is 117.”
Miles acknowledged her kids have had good teachers and experiences in Schenectady. But in better resourced and outfitted schools, her kids and their classmates would be much further along than they are.
“Even as brilliant as she is, she is still considered behind in her reading level,” Miles said of Malia. “I think the problem is there are so many small things that make up this huge problem in our district.”
Malia, who has joined her mom at protests and rallies, said she was proud of what her mom does.
“My mom fights for human rights,” Malia said.
“She came home Tuesday and said, ‘Mom I learned about Martin Luther King,’” Miles said. “I asked what did she learn, and she said he fight for human rights like you do. Which was a major compliment to me.”
“Because I love what you do,” Malia said.
A district now in the mix
Schenectady Superintendent Larry Spring has said in the past that Schenectady would be a good candidate for making the case that schools are underfunded and has said he thinks Schenectady students are deprived of a sound basic education. He said the district is cooperating with the legal team pushing the case and has provided technical assistance in the form of district data. The district, however, is not directly party to the lawsuit.
The complaint traces a basic outline of the Schenectady City School District and its challenges. It details the demographics of the district and sketches the staffing resources provided to students: One social worker for every 207 students; one guidance counselor for every 358 students; one reading specialist for every 150 students; one librarian for every 848 students, according to the complaint.
The complaint claims over the past decade the district has received $600 million less foundation aid than “it was entitled to” under the state’s funding formula. The funding levels, the complaint alleges, have resulted in $35 million in cuts to the district’s budget over the past eight years.
Aside from disputing attempts to make general statewide arguments of inadequate funding, state lawyers have argued the foundation aid formula was never established as a minimum level of proper school funding.
Miles and Hooks, as well as other parents in the case, are represented pro-bono by lawyers at the Newark-based Education Law Center, which litigates similar school cases across the country.
Greg Little, one of their top lawyers, said the legal team pressing the case will attempt to demonstrate three things for each district: that the district’s inputs, such as staffing and programs, are inadequate to meet students’ needs; that the district has outputs, graduation rates and test scores, that fall well below other schools; and that the poor outputs are causally linked to the inputs.
“We are very confident with the Schenectady school district we can accomplish that,” Little said.
While he said each district in the case would “stand on its own merits,” a decision in the plaintiffs’ favor would have statewide impact and potentially pressure lawmakers to boost funding.
The state still has time to respond to the new complaint. After the state responds, the parties can move into a discovery phase, opening the door to further analysis of Schenectady schools, including interviews with school district staff, Little said.
“There is much more to say about this, much more to demonstrate about this, and that’s what we will do over the next couple of months,” Little said.
Little said the legal team plans to push the case forward as quickly as possible, looking to avoid the years-long litigation that has been the mainstay of challenges to the state’s funding of schools.