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NewsRegion/State

Court weighs dismissal motion for school funding lawsuit

ALBANY — Education activists told New York’s top court Tuesday that state leaders have never made good on a landmark school funding case.

A lawyer for the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, a group that has waged a legal battle for more school funding, said the state hasn’t lived up to a 2006 court mandate to increase funding for New York City schools by $1.9 billion.

Further, the state has engaged in a “never-ending cycle of non-accountability” by avoiding an equitable statewide funding formula, attorney Michael Rebell told the Court of Appeals.

At issue is a case that has reverberated through state courtrooms and state Capitol hallways for more than a decade. In the so-called CFE lawsuit, a group of parents, students, school officials and others had successfully sued the state for shortchanging New York City schools , violating students’ constitutional right to a “sound, basic” education. In a follow-up case, the Court of Appeals said in 2006 that funding for the city school district should be boosted by $1.9 billion -- and, by extension, at least $2.45 billion statewide.

Though the state boosted educational spending in the next two school years following the case, it reduced funding after the 2008-2009 economic recession. Since then, the plaintiffs said the state essentially has tried to avoid its obligation, saying “the state has abandoned its constitutional reform efforts and has further cut and frozen state aid without responding to actual student needs.” The plaintiffs filed this latest lawsuit, again seeking the state to boost educational spending.

The state had asked to have the lawsuit dismissed, citing legal deficiencies, but two lower courts have denied its motion. If the Court of Appeals reacts similarly, the lawsuit would then go to a trial. But if it agrees with the dismissal motion, the lawsuit is over.

In back-and-forth with the court’s judges, Andrew Amend, an assistant state attorney general, said New York City had received “operating funds well above twice as much” as the court had ordered a decade ago. He also argued the original lawsuit provided no proof of any other school district in the state receiving a state aid at such a low level as to violate students’ right to an education.

Rebell countered that the only practical way to satisfy the original judgment would be to implement a statewide funding boost — otherwise “we’re going to have to have 700 trials,” he said, referring to the rough number of school districts in New York.

Judge Eugene Fahey questioned whether school spending wasn’t a “balancing act” for state legislators, who must also fund corrections, transportation and other needs. Rebell said education had a “special place” among others because it is guaranteed in the state constitution.

The court typically takes four to six weeks to decide a case.

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