Despite heralding "Public Education Day" last Monday, New York State officials face court challenges from two groups over allegations of racial discrimination in the public school financing system.
The New York Civil Liberties Union plans to file a lawsuit in October in an effort to remedy conditions at more than 100 "failing schools" statewide, in which large numbers of children are performing far below state standards, and to bring about systemic reform that would identify the causes of failure in each school and correct such deficiencies on a school-by-school basis.
Last month, representing nearly 80,000 children who attend "high-minority" schools in New York State, the NYCLU got the green light from a federal judge to proceed with a separate lawsuit, originally filed in December 1998, despite vigorous efforts by the state to have the case dismissed. The lawsuit accuses Governor George Pataki, State Education Commissioner Richard Mills, and other high-ranking officials of violating the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlaws racial discrimination in any federally funded program.
Meanwhile, the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, a not-for-profit coalition of parent groups, community school boards, and advocacy groups, awaits judgment after seven years and a trial that concluded last July. In its lawsuit, representing the city's schoolchildren, CFE argued that a provision in the state constitution guaranteeing all students a "sound, basic education" is not being met because thousands of students attend overcrowded schools with inadequate supplies and a lack of experienced, certified teachers. Michael Rebell, executive director for CFE, says that more than 1 million minority children citywide are adversely affected by the state's existing policies.
The education crisis, according to CFE, has been exacerbated by the failure of Albany to provide the board of education with sufficient funds to meet newly imposed State Board of Regents' learning standards. "Since the state regents are requiring all children to pass these challenging new exams in order to get a diploma and graduate," says Rebell, "the state has a moral and legal responsibility to provide the resources to all children to be able to reach those goals."
According to a 1999 state education report, students in "high-minority" schools (in which over 80 percent of students are non-Caucasian) were significantly more likely to drop out than students in "low-minority" schools. A 1998 state report says that African American students in high-minority schools were almost twice as likely to drop out as African American students in low-minority schools.
According to CFE researchers, in New York City, where over 80 percent of public school students are minorities, one-third of the elementary school students are functionally illiterate; 40 percent of students who enter the ninth grade do not receive a high school diploma; and more than half of the city's high school graduates who attend the City University require extensive remedial education in basic English and math.
While New York City has 38 percent of the state's students, it receives 35.5 percent of the state's aid. But Rebell prefers not to focus on this 2.5 percent disparity, saying, "Certainly, providing less than the kids get upstate is absurd; we need something more, because we've got 70 percent of the kids from backgrounds of concentrated poverty; we've got 80 percent of the kids with limited English proficiency in New York City; so those are the kinds of needs that have to be fully addressed if we're going to take seriously the constitutional right at issue."
In defense of the existing funding system, the state's attorneys contended in court documents that it adequately addresses student need and differences in districts' wealth. Voice calls to the State Education Department for comment on the lawsuits were not returned.
But Rebell rejects this assertion, saying that the funding system is "really a political deal, rather than a rational funding system. What really happens is that during the legislative session, the governor and the two legislative leadersthe speaker [of the assembly] and the majority leaderliterally get together in a room, and they make a political deal," he says. "They put this window dressing on it, with all these computer runs and formulas, so people think there's something objective and scientific to it; and that is not rational, and it does not meet the constitutional obligation to provide a fair opportunity for sound, basic education."
NYCLU researchers anticipate that the state will challenge their definition of a "sound, basic education." Don Shaffer, cooperating attorney on the case, expects the state to argue that a basic education simply means providing a teacher, a building, and books.
Shaffer says, "But we will be talking about basic education as being the regents' standards. Of course, as we know, in order to compete in the marketplace, you've got to be able to do more than just read and write; you've got to be computer literate, you have to know foreign languages. The term we use is a 'contemporary educational standard.' "
Shaffer is optimistic about the outcome of the upcoming case. "We're going to win," he says confidently, "and we hope to involve the parents, schools, teachers, and administrators of these schools to find a proper remedy."
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