Ticket to Nowhere


When George Pataki was 14 years old, he watched his older brother Lou break down in tears at the thought of never making it to Yale. Accepted but offered no financial assistance, Lou was momentarily headed to a lesser college that gave him a scholarship, until his incensed father got Yale to change its mind.

Unbeknownst to the rest of the family, the senior Pataki, also named Louis, drove to the Yale admissions office in work clothes, without an appointment. “I’m a mailman,” he told an admissions officer who finally approached him in the waiting room. “You people are supposed to be smart, but you admit someone who clearly can’t afford your tuition and you don’t even offer him a scholarship. It says right here on his application how much money I make. It makes no sense.” The school offered young Lou a “work-loan” scholarship on the spot and that’s how both he and, years later, George wound up in New Haven.

In Pataki’s 1998 autobiography, he said his parents made him go to Yale as well because it had been “so responsive to our particular needs.”

That was apparently the New York governor’s first run-in with an educational funding formula that ignored need. Too bad Louis Pataki isn’t still around to embarrass his son into changing the one he’s been defending for seven and a half years—a state aid formula that is killing the far less lofty dreams of hundreds of thousands of New York City public school kids. Instead, George Pataki announced last week how “pleased” he was with an appellate court decision that kept in place the state’s need-blind funding system that, as Papa Pataki would put it, “makes no sense.” Though the formula’s discriminatory impact on the city has become axiomatic, the court sustained it after nine years of litigation by concocting a success standard reminiscent of Dickens.

It was Pataki who decided last year to appeal Manhattan Supreme Court Judge Leland DeGrasse’s landmark decision finally overturning the discredited formula. It was also Pataki who appointed or promoted the three appellate judges who ruled that the state could satisfy its constitutional duty to provide a “sound basic education” if the schools it financed did no more than qualify students to flip Big Macs. “Society needs workers in all levels of jobs,” said the opinion written by Justice Alfred Lerner, “the majority of which may well be low level.”

The decision attempted to turn fast-food futures into a virtue, assailing DeGrasse for ostensibly concluding that a person engaged in a service job “is not a valuable, productive member of society.” It even railed against DeGrasse’s demand that schools prepare students for “competitive employment” opportunities—as opposed to any job that involves “productive functioning”—contending that the higher job standard “expanded” the scope of the case to a challenge “to the capitalist system in general.” It was as if the very existence of a reliable, dishwashing underclass might be at stake.

Somehow, Lerner, a Queens Republican, John Buckley, an upstate Republican, and Joseph Sullivan, a Democrat originally appointed by Governor Carey but promoted to presiding justice by Pataki, found a way to give a passing grade to a school system that fails to graduate four of every 10 ninth-graders. Peter Tom, a Mario Cuomo appointee re-appointed by Pataki, joined the majority but filed his own opinion, warning that “the growing crisis” in city schools might in the near future “trigger a state constitutional violation.”

Only David Saxe, also appointed by Pataki, dissented, contending DeGrasse could only be reversed “by ignoring the actual circumstances of the City’s student population.” Saxe wrote that if providing students with sixth grade arithmetic and eighth grade reading skills was enough to meet the state’s mandate, as the majority argued, “then logically, it has no meaningful obligation to provide any high school education at all.”

Such a Pataki-friendly panel, chosen “randomly” in an appellate division where more than half the judges were initially named by Cuomo, was last achieved in a press-worthy case in the 2000 decision to move the trial of the cops charged with killing Amadou Diallo. Lerner, Buckley, and Saxe decided on the basis of a defense-sponsored poll to take the Diallo case out of the hands of a black judge in the Bronx and transfer it all the way to very white Albany, where the officers were predictably acquitted. With 84 percent of the city’s pupils nonwhite, and DeGrasse finding that the school formula has a disparate racial impact, this case was as racially charged as Diallo.

While the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, which brought the school suit in 1993, promises to appeal Lerner’s decision to the Court of Appeals, it will not be heard until after the governor is re-elected in November. That may well make it an invisible electoral issue, even though the ruling is laced with bitter ironies—for Pataki and the city’s kids.

For example, though the governor’s Hungarian father spoke no English when he entered a Peekskill first grade decades ago, the appellate decision Pataki is now celebrating blamed the poor performance of city students on “demographic factors such as poverty, dysfunctional homes, and homes where English is not spoken.” It found that “more spending on education is not necessarily the answer,” instead suggesting that “the cure lies in eliminating the socio-economic conditions facing certain students,” a victim-blaming prescription for educational paralysis.

The Pataki court was responding to the state’s expert witnesses, who were collectively paid nearly $1 million dollars. They constructed mathematical models that purported to show that smaller class sizes, better facilities, and even certified teachers had no significant impact on achievement “after controlling for socioeconomic factors.” Once demography was made determinative, the state brief argued that “deficiencies in student performance attributable to socioeconomic conditions are not relevant to assessing whether schools are meeting constitutional standards.”

Whatever funding shortfall exists, the state lawyers and the appellate judges agreed, is at the city level. Though Pataki joined in stripping the city of the commuter tax, as well as prevailing on Mayor Bloomberg not to increase taxes, his lawyers in this case actually contended that the city is undertaxed. Their brief identified an $841 million annual “loss” the schools were suffering because the city “didn’t tax itself at the state median tax rate.”

In the aftermath of the decision, Pataki has tried to pretend that the inequities of the formula are old news, resolved by recent aid increases to the city. He’s also repeated his call that the legislature do something about a formula he began deriding as a “dinosaur” at the same moment that he filed the appeal to protect it. He hasn’t done anything himself but blab, submitting a budget this year that maintained the formula. Indeed, the state budget office’s estimates for the last year covered by the lawsuit—1999-2000—revealed that the city got $225 million less than the statewide aid average, without factoring in the much higher costs here.

The very week of the decision, the governor was heard once again spouting “world-class education” rhetoric. His State of the State addresses have been filled with statements like: “In every aspect of our educational system, we must set the highest standards for student success, and settle for nothing less.” Yet since this case was filed, 600,000 students have finished their NYC school careers, 240,000 of them without a diploma. To defend allocations that reward GOP upstate and suburban strongholds, Pataki’s lawyers have even been willing to salute this system as “one of the best” in any American city. Like the aspirational standards this decision sets for our young, it’s about as low as a governor can go.

Research assistance: Jen DiMascio, Chris Heaney, Matteen R. Mokalla, Nate Schweber, and Emily Weinstein