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Campaign for Fiscal Equity

Fri, Jul 27, 2007

In for the Long Haul

By The New York Community Trust

New York City has a number of excellent public schools that are models for the country. But too many City kids attend school in crumbling, overcrowded buildings with overburdened teachers, limited technology, and not enough books and supplies. For decades, The Trust has supported efforts to improve the City's schools for all students. In the late 1970s, we helped fund research on the State's education funding system, which shortchanges the City and other high-needs districts in New York. Unfortunately, an unsuccessful lawsuit by a Long Island district challenging the inequitable funding system set a seemingly insurmountable precedent.

In the early 1990s, the City was still receiving 12 percent less aid per pupil than the statewide average, even though we enrolled 70 percent of the State's low-income students, 60 percent of those in remedial programs, 50 percent of kids with severe disabilities, and 80 percent of immigrant students.

Robert Jackson, then a community school board president and parent of a public high school student, and Michael Rebell, a lawyer for the District 6 school board in Washington Heights, decided they'd had enough. They founded the Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE), a coalition of New York City education and advocacy groups, to revive efforts to get sufficient money for City schools. Our first grant to CFE supported additional research to determine whether a new legal challenge was possible. In 1993, CFE brought a lawsuit claiming that the system denies City students their right under the State constitution to an adequate education.

Subsequent grants to CFE—more than $2.5 million over 13 years—included support for litigation costs, activities to build city and statewide constituencies for finance reform, and research to develop accountability measures to ensure that education funds are used effectively. We also supported other groups working with CFE to build citizen support for the lawsuit and proposed remedies, and to advocate with elected officials.

In June 2003, after a long legal battle, the Court of Appeals ruled in favor of CFE and ordered the State to institute reforms by July 2004; it authorized the trial court to conduct any further proceedings that might be necessary. When the State failed to meet the deadline, the trial court appointed a panel of referees to determine the extent of non-compliance and make recommendations about what should be done.

After extensive hearings and reviewing expert studies commissioned by the governor and CFE, the panel recommended that the City's schools receive $5.6 billion yearly in additional operating funds and $9.2 billion for capital needs. The recommendations, which were confirmed by the trial judge, were appealed by the State. In March 2006, the Appellate Division affirmed the ruling on capital funds and held that City schools need between $4.7 and $5.63 billion yearly in additional operating funds. CFE, the Alliance for Quality Education, parents, and education advocates march on the Court of Appeals on October 10, 2006 showing the faces of CFE, the children of  New York State.

In early 2006, the State legislature agreed to authorize the City to expend $11 billion for school construction over the next five years, with substantial state reimbursement. However, it appealed the decision on operating funds back to the Court of Appeals. In November 2006, the court ruled that a minimum of $1.93 billion more must be spent each year on City schools.

The conclusion of the CFE case was both a victory and a disappointment. The final Court of Appeals decision reiterated the important earlier ruling in the case that there is a link between funding and the schools' ability to provide a decent education, and it affirmed that students have a State constitutional right to a sound, basic education. But while a yearly increase of $2 billion will provide critical help to the City schools, it is far less than the amount that had been found necessary and ordered by the lower courts.

The Court of Appeals also deferred to the Governor and the legislature to determine if additional funds are needed and declined to intervene to reform the State's archaic and dysfunctional school financing system, leaving that issue to the political process. CFE and other advocacy groups supported by The Trust are already working to press for school finance reform with the new governor and legislature.      

For 13 years, The Trust has stuck with CFE to get better schools for City kids. From the beginning, although we had confidence in CFE and the cause, we knew there was no way to predict the outcome of the lawsuit. Had we looked for short-term results, or even measured the impact of our grants over a few years, we might have ended our support prematurely. Grantmaking is in part hard-headed judgment, part instinct, and part passion, which sometimes means doing what needs to be done even if progress is slow, and even in the face of possible failure.

Photo Credit: Carol Bluestein Photography


Parents from across the state march on the Capitol in Albany to show support for CFE.
CFE Litigation CFE v. State of New York
In 2006, after 13 years in the Courts, the New York State Court of Appeals affirmed the right of every public school student in New York to the opportunity for a sound basic education and the state’s responsibility to adequately fund this right, but deferred to the Governor and the Legislature to determine the appropriate amount. more >