In 2003, the Court of Appeals, New York’s highest court, held in Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) v. State of New York that Article XI, § 1 of the state constitution requires New York State to provide all of its students “a meaningful high school education,” one that will prepare them to “function productively as civic participants capable of voting [or] serving on a jury,” and “to obtain ‘competitive employment.’” (CFE II, 801 N.E. 2d at 332). In 2006, the court ordered the state to implement a remedy in the case.
In 2007, in response to the court’s holding, the state legislature enacted a new education finance statute that called for funding increases of about $5.4 billion for New York City and $4 billion for the rest of the state, to be phased in over a four-year period. The state largely met its constitutional and statutory obligations for the first two years of the phase-in, but, as the fiscal exigencies of the recession started to take hold, for the third year of the scheduled four-year phase-in, school year 2009-10, the legislature froze foundation funding at the prior year’s level.
For the next fiscal year, the governor and the legislature reduced basic foundation funding statewide by $740 million, largely through a “temporary” “gap elimination adjustment” mechanism, and for the 2011-12 fiscal year, the state cut overall state aid for educational operations by an additional $1.5 billion (or 8.5%). The state increased school funding slightly for 2012-13, and again for 2013-14; however, even with the new funding, total foundation funding is still more than $4 billion below the amount the state legislature determined, in the wake of the Court of Appeals decision in CFE v. State of New York, was necessary to provide all students the opportunity for a sound basic education. And a $1.64 billion gap elimination adjustment is still in place—an acknowledgment that students’ needs are being ignored because the state is not prepared to appropriate the necessary funds.
Constitutional rights are not conditional, and they cannot be put on hold because there is a recession or state budget deficit. In past and recent court decisions dealing with reductions in state funding for education during times of fiscal constraint, the courts have consistently upheld students’ right to a sound basic education every time they have directly confronted the issue. For example, in 2011, the New Jersey Supreme Court invalidated Governor Chris Christie’s attempt to reduce educational expenditures because of state budget deficits. The court held that funding for the 31 poor urban Abbott districts must be increased for the current school year by approximately $500 million (Abbott v. Burke, 20 A. 3d 1018 (NJ 2011)). Similarly, in North Carolina, where the 2011 budget bill had capped enrollment for at-risk children in the state’s prekindergarten program and cut the program’s budget by $32 million, the superior court invalidated the cap restriction and issued an order requiring the state to “provide the quality services of the [pre-kindergarten program] to any eligible at risk four hear old that applies” (Hoke Co. Bd. of Educ. v. North Carolina, 95 CVS 1158, p.19 (Superior Ct., Wake Co., July 2011)).