Court seeks to define obligation to education

New York struggles with question of state payments to city schools

August 14, 2002|By Robert F. Worth and Anemona Hartocollis | Robert F. Worth and Anemona Hartocollis,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK - For almost a decade, New York state has been involved in a legal battle over whether the state is paying its fair share toward New York City's vast and ailing public school system.

Over the years, the struggle largely appeared to the public to be a complex rhetorical war over money: How much the city's schools need, whether the suburbs were getting more per student, and who should pay to bring the city schools up to a higher standard.

But two recent rulings in the case, including one by a state appeals court, highlighted a more fundamental question underlying the dispute - one more philosophical than financial; one involving the Constitution, not a calculator: What is the minimal obligation of government to educate its children?

New York is only one of more than two dozen states where courts have grappled with this issue, and some educators said they found the appeals court's ruling comparatively stingy. Reversing a lower court decision issued last year, the court ruled that schools were obligated by the state Constitution to do nothing more than prepare students for low-level jobs, for serving on a jury and for reading campaign literature - the equivalent, the court suggested, of an eighth- or a ninth-grade education.

"Defining an adequate education that minimally sounds like giving up," Gerald Graff, an education professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said of the ruling.

But others saw the ruling's narrowness as a gesture not of parsimony but of wisdom, a recognition that money is not necessarily the cure for an ailing system.

`A brave decision'

"It's kind of a brave decision," said Clayton Gillette, a professor at New York University School of Law. "They're willing to say that dollars in does not necessarily equate with equality out, that there are other factors: poverty, immigration, labor contracts."

In its decision, the appeals court did not dispute that New York City schools are plagued by low-paid and undertrained teachers, large classes, antiquated books and deteriorated buildings.

But in reckoning with that state of affairs, they suggested it was the court's job not to set an ideal - or, as the judges called it, an "aspirational" standard - but to determine what is a constitutional human right to education. New York City, however troubled its schools, met that standard, however limited the bar.

The decision will be appealed by the coalition whose lawsuit led to the ruling, the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, and it is not yet clear whether the state will ultimately have to start imposing higher standards - and paying for them.

Whatever the outcome, the ruling has exposed a perhaps underappreciated and intriguing debate about what is meant by the state's guarantee of a "sound, basic education" for all its children.

Those words, so familiar to New Yorkers, are not actually contained in the state Constitution, which says only that the state is required to provide "the maintenance and support of a system of free common schools wherein all the children of this state may be educated."

The phrase "sound, basic" was coined by the state's highest court, the Court of Appeals, as an interpretation of what the state Constitution requires. That court also decreed in 1995 that schools must prepare students to "function productively as civic participants capable of voting and serving on a jury."

The two courts that have ruled on the New York case have interpreted those words in varying ways. Both agreed that the requirement means more than just turning out people who can find their way to courthouses and voting booths.

But beyond that, they offered divergent views on what it means to "function productively" as a citizen.

A ruling in 2001 emphasized the difficult decisions citizenship can entail. "Jurors today," Justice Leland DeGrasse wrote, "must determine questions of fact concerning DNA evidence, statistical analyses and convoluted financial fraud, to name only three topics." The state appealed his ruling.

Where DeGrasse found that the city schools did not prepare students to meet that challenge, the appeals court disagreed, contending that "the skills required to enable a person to obtain employment, vote, and serve on a jury are imparted between grades eight and nine, a level of skill which plaintiffs do not dispute is being provided."

Goal is employment

Another question that drew lengthy discussions from both courts was the career options for which a "sound, basic education" should prepare students. Conceding that schools should not be required to prepare students for an "elite four-year college," DeGrasse nonetheless ruled that students should be prepared for "competitive employment," meaning something more than "low-level jobs paying the minimum wage."

To the appeals court, that smacked of social engineering. Instead, a student should simply be provided "the ability to get a job, and support oneself, and thereby not be a charge on the public fisc," wrote Justice Alfred D. Lerner for the majority.

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