Court of Appeals Holds Education Funding Cases Must be Pled on District-by-District Basis

Under the Education Article of the New York Constitution, students are guaranteed a free, sound basic education that should prepare them for participation in society.  For the last 20 years, parents, education groups, and the State have fought over exactly what that requires.  

Beginning in 1995 with a series of cases called Campaign for Fiscal Equality v State of New York, the Court of Appeals held that New York’s education system failed to provide students with a “sound basic education” as required under the Education Article of the New York Constitution (see Campaign for Fiscal Equity v State of New York, 86 NY2d 307 [1995] [“CFE I”]; CFE II, 100 NY2d 893 [2003]; CFE III, 8 NY3d 14 [2006]). In CFE II, the Court held that funding for schools across the State was too low to satisfy the Constitution’s requirements, and then in CFE III, declared that the State’s chosen funding formula in response to CFE II was not unreasonable. 

Particularly, the State determined that $1.93 billion more needed to be spent on the New York City schools to provide for the “sound basic education” required by the Constitution.  That funding, however, was withheld during the 2008 recession and then reduced starting with the 2009-2010 school year.  

Two separate groups of plaintiffs challenged the reductions, arguing that the State had abandoned the funding increase mandated by the Court’s decision in CFE III. In New Yorkers for Students’ Educational Rights v State of New York, previewed here, the plaintiffs brought claims challenging the funding levels statewide, but only particularized their allegations of how the funding cuts deprived students of the sound basic education in the New York City and Syracuse school districts. In particular, the NYSER plaintiffs alleged that the reduction in funding  led to fewer teachers, inadequate curricula, larger class sizes, and lower test scores, among many other things. 

The allegations made by the plaintiffs in Aristy-Farer v State of New York, however, were much more conclusory.  The Aristy-Farer plaintiffs focused their claims on the State’s withholding of approximately $290 million in 2012, as a penalty for New York City’s failure to implement a program to assess the performance
of the District’s teachers and administrators.  That withholding, the plaintiffs claimed, deprived NYC students of a sound basic education, but they failed to specify how.

Addressing the NYSER plaintiffs’ statewide claims first, the Court of Appeals held that its prior Education Article precedent made clear that specific district-by-district allegations must be pled to sustain a claim for failure to provide the sound, basic education required by the New York Constitution.  Because funding for education in New York comes from a mix of State and local funding, funding for each school district will be different and insufficient funding in one district doesn’t necessarily mean the rest have constitutionally inadequate funding as well.  Thus, plaintiffs in Education Article cases have the burden to allege, and ultimately prove, that the funding was so inadequate in one particular district that it failed to provide the education required by the New York Constitution. 

Although the Court dropped a footnote to suggest that it has not foreclosed entirely a statewide challenge to the State’s education funding system, in all practical reality, it has done exactly that. To find a statewide violation, a plaintiff would have to show particularly that every school district in the state was given constitutionally inadequate funding. That’s an impossible task. In fact, the only examples the Court gives of plausible statewide violations of the Education Article is if the State just stopped paying for public schools after elementary school or cut all math classes. The Court’s absurd examples prove the point.  By this decision, the Court has, in effect, ruled out any statewide Education Article challenges to the education funding system. 

The Court then rejected the NYSER plaintiffs’ statewide challenges based almost exclusively upon allegations concerning deficiencies in the New York City and Syracuse schools.  The Court does, however, allow the NYSER plaintiffs to pursue their deprivation of a sound, basic education claims against NYC and Syracuse because their allegations were sufficiently specific to link the reduction in state funding to the failures of those schools.  The Aristy-Farer plaintiffs weren’t so fortunate. Because they failed to tie the 2012 withholding of funds to any particular deficiencies in the NYC schools, the Court dismissed the Aristy-Farer plaintiffs’ complaint in its entirety. 

The Court of Appeals’ opinion can be found here.

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