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Court of Appeals Says New York State Is Failing City Schools

New York State has failed to meet its constitutional obligation to educate all its children, leading to a "systemic failure" in New York City's schools that has deprived students of their right to a "sound basic education," the state's highest court ruled today. It gave the state until July 2004 to find a remedy.

In its 4-to-1 decision, the Court of Appeals ruled that the city's schools bear the extraordinary burden of teaching the neediest students in a region with the highest costs, yet receive state aid payments that are among the lowest, on a per-pupil basis.

Largely because of that dynamic, the court ruled found that tens of thousands of the city's 1.1 million students wind up in overcrowded classrooms, led by unqualified, inexperienced teachers, reading old books and working on aging computers.

If children were able to do well on tests and graduate in reasonable numbers, that might indicate that they "somehow still receive the opportunity" for an adequate high school education, Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye, writing for the majority, said in the ruling. "The showing, however, is otherwise," the court found, noting that more than one-third of the city's schoolchildren are "functionally illiterate," only half of them graduate on time, while a full 30 percent never finish high school at all.

Wary of stepping into the Legislature's domain, the court refused to specify how much money it would take to fix matters. Instead, it ordered the state to "ascertain the actual cost" of providing a constitutionally adequate education, then to make sure that the city has enough resources to provide one.

Although the state had vigorously rejected the plaintiff's claims in the lawsuit, Gov. George E. Pataki responded enthusiastically to the ruling, which cannot be appealed. "It's a positive opportunity for us to focus on education, on the classroom, on the teachers, on the kids, and make sure that every single kid gets a good quality high school education," he said.

As it calculates how much money an adequate education costs, the state need not start from scratch, the court ruled. The decision not only empowers but also encourages the Legislature to build on current changes, like the federal No Child Left Behind Act and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's enhanced powers over schools, all of which may substantially influence whatever dollar amount the city's schools end up receiving.

Still, the current improvements are not enough to excuse the state from doing more, the court found, particularly when it comes to fixing a state financial formula that "does not seem to bear a perceptible relation to the needs of city students."

Who, exactly, should end up paying for any increases remains to be seen, and the judges allude to the possibility that at least some of the burden may be borne by the city's taxpayers themselves. But how the burden is split between the state and the city, the court ruled, is in the realm of politics, not law.

Writing for the majority, all but one of whom were appointed under Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, Judge Kaye said, "We neither have the authority, nor the ability, nor the will, to micromanage education financing."

Justice Susan Phillips Read was the lone dissenter.

— Greg Winter
staff writer
New York Times
New York State Failing City Schools, Court Says





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