THE RIGHT TO A SOUND BASIC EDUCATION: A PRIMER ON THE NY “SMALL CITIES” CASE
September 23, 2014
Education Law Center recently joined the legal team representing the Plaintiff students and parents in Maisto, et al. v. New York. This lawsuit, commonly referred to as the “Small Cities” case, challenges the State’s failure to provide essential educational resources in eight (8) small cities school districts. The lawsuit claims the State is violating the right of district students to a “sound basic education” under the New York constitution.
The trial in the Small Cities case is scheduled to start in December. William Reynolds of the Albany-based Bond, Schoeneck and King law firm is leading the trial team with ELC’s Executive Director and prominent education rights attorney, David Sciarra. The team also includes ELC Senior Attorney Wendy Lecker and NYSUT Associate Counsel Megan Mercy. The NY Association of Small Cities School Districts’ Executive Director Robert Biggerstaff and law partner Laura K. Biggerstaff, who handled the pleading and discovery stages through 2013, continue to provide support for the districts involved in the litigation.
The outcome of the Small Cities case will directly affect the 55,000 students in the 8 districts involved in the litigation. The result could well impact thousands of students across the state deprived of educational resources and opportunities, particularly those in underfunded districts similar to the “Small Cities 8.”
Below are some frequently asked questions about the Small Cities case:
Why is the Small Cities Case so important?
The trial in the Small Cities case is the first to address the issue of inadequate school funding since the New York Court of Appeals issued its precedent-setting decisions in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. New York (CFE) case. The Small Cities trial will also address for the first time the State’s failure to properly fund the Foundation Aid Formula, enacted in 2007 to provide students with the resources necessary for a “meaningful high school education,” the definition of a sound basic education established by the Court of Appeals in CFE.
Which school districts are in the case?
Poughkeepsie, Jamestown, Port Jervis, Utica, Niagara Falls, Mount Vernon, Kingston and Newburgh. The districts’ student poverty rates range between 50% and 94%, with an average of 72%. All of the districts have low property wealth and income and high pupil need as measured by the New York State Education Department (SED).
When was the Small Cities case filed?
The first complaint was filed in 2008. The complaint has since been amended twice to add additional plaintiffs and address more recent developments on school funding.
Why did the case take so long to get to trial?
The New York Attorney General, who represents the State, took aggressive action to dismiss the complaint and avoid a trial. The trial judge denied the Attorney General’s motion to dismiss, a ruling that was upheld in 2011 by an Appellate Court. In June 2012, New York’s high court – the Court of Appeals – firmly rejected the Attorney General’s motion and sent the case back to Albany for trial.
The trial was further delayed when Judge Eugene Devine, who had handled the case from the outset, was elevated to the Appellate Court in late 2013.
What are the claims in this case?
The Plaintiffs claim the State is violating the constitutional right of students in the Small Cities districts to the opportunity for a “meaningful high school education,” the definition of a “sound basic education” under the New York Constitution established in the CFE rulings.
The CFE rulings established three basic elements that plaintiffs must prove to demonstrate a violation of the right to a sound basic education in the Small Cities districts:
- deficits in essential inputs and resources, including adequate facilities, reasonable class sizes, curriculum and instructional supports, qualified teachers and other school personnel, and an expanded platform of services for at-risk students and students with special needs;
- low outcomes as measured by state assessments and proficiency benchmarks, graduation rates, and other performance indicators; and
- inadequate funding establishing a correlation with the deficiencies in essential inputs and low outcomes.
What evidence will Plaintiffs present at trial?
At trial, Plaintiffs will offer extensive evidence on all three of the CFE elements for a sound basic education in the 8 Small Cities districts: resource deficits, low outcomes and inadequate funding. These proofs will demonstrate the State’s failure to provide the opportunity for a meaningful high school education for the Small Cities students, especially those at risk of academic failure due to community and family poverty, disability, language barriers and other special needs.
Didn’t the CFE case already address these claims?
No, the CFE case only addressed these issues as to students in New York City, and ordered an increase in funding only for New York City schools. The Court of Appeals in its final 2006 ruling in CFE made clear that the ruling was limited to New York City, but invited the Legislature and Governor to address the funding needs of other districts, if they chose to do so.
What is the importance of the 2007 Formula in the case?
In 2007, the Legislature and Governor responded to the Court of Appeals’ invitation in CFE and enacted a new funding formula – the Foundation Aid Formula. The Foundation Formula was designed and intended to provide the funding needed to deliver a sound basic education to students in all New York districts, including the Small Cities districts. The Formula required a phase-in of $5.5 billion in new state aid over four years, most directed to urban and rural districts with high student need. After increasing aid in 2007 and 2008, aid was frozen aid in 2009 and, in 2010 and 2011, the State made substantial aid cuts.
As of 2012-13, the Small Cities districts are underfunded by $236 million under the 2007 Foundation Formula, with the funding gap ranging from $2516 per pupil in Kingston to $6370 per pupil in Utica.
What relief can the court order?
The Plaintiffs are asking the court to: 1) declare the State is not providing students in the Small Cities districts with a sound basic education in violation of the Education Article in the New York Constitution, and 2) direct the State to promptly ensure the districts the resources necessary to remedy the constitutional violation by phasing-in state aid under the Foundation Formula or by some other comparable method.
For resources on the Small Cities case, visit:
Policy and Outreach Director
973-624-1815, x 24