Top court: Students have right to sue over school funding
Galleries2012 Valedictorians in the Hudson Valley
The state's highest court Tuesday said students in small city school districts should have their day in court to decide whether New York State is properly funding their classrooms.
In a 6-1 decision, the judges rejected a motion to dismiss a lawsuit by 101 parents and students in 13 small city school districts, including seven districts in the Hudson Valley. The parents claim that the state has failed to uphold its obligation in the state constitution to properly fund a sound basic education for students.
The state argued that the court should stay out of legislating fiscal policy. But State Appeals Court Judge Carmen Ciparick argued that one of the court's functions is to assure that the legislature is meeting its obligations in the constitution.
"Prudential concerns about judicial economy are both valid and necessary; however, they are no reason to close the courthouse doors to parents and children with viable constitutional claims," Ciparick wrote.
Ciparick repeatedly reaffirmed the court's role and 2006 decision in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit, which found the state's funding for New York City lacking. In response, the legislature passed the New York State Education Budget and Reform Act of 2007-2008 promising more that $7 billion in additional school aid. The distribution of that money has been delayed because of the recession.
The small cities lawsuit extends many of the arguments made for Manhattan students to those in the Hudson Valley districts of Kingston, Middletown, Mount Vernon, Newburgh, Peekskill, Poughkeepsie and Port Jervis. The suit also raises questions about more recent policies of capping both the state's aid to districts and property tax revenue.
The sole dissenting judge in the decision, Susan Phillips Read, used arguments similar to those against the Campaign for Fiscal Equity decision. Read wrote that the court could invite additional funding lawsuits by getting involved in the issue.
Ciparick countered that if even more students are indeed being shortchanged, it's more important for the courts to consider the case. "That the State may be violating its constitutional mandate on a grander scale, in many more localities and toward many more children, than originally anticipated does not drown out, by force of volume, the existence of the violation," Ciparick writes.
Bob Biggerstaff, executive director of the New York Association of Small City School Districts and attorney representing the schools in the case, celebrated the ruling.
"We're all still jumping up and down," Biggerstaff said. "These kids have a right to go to court and make the case that they're not getting the sound basic education that the constitution ensures them."
The state will now argue in trial court that it is meeting its obligation, said Jennifer Givner, spokeswoman for New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.
"We hope to establish there that current and planned expenditures satisfy constitutional requirements. Nothing in the Court of Appeals decision rules out that result," Givner said.
The case will proceed with the fact-finding phase and could go to trial as early as next spring, Biggerstaff said.