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Campaign for Educational Equity

Safeguarding Educational Rights K-12

In November 2016, the Campaign for Educational Equity released a series of reports designed as a policy roadmap to help guide elected officials, the Board of Regents, and the New York State Education Department in moving New York toward providing all children the essential educational opportunities guaranteed by law. View our four-part series, Students' Constitutional Right to a Sound Basic Education: New York State's Unfinished Agenda

The recent recession has had a devastating impact on the educational opportunities of students, particularly those from low-income households. Many schools around the state currently lack the basic educational resources they need to provide their students the opportunity for a sound basic education guaranteed by the state constitution. The effects have been especially acute on students in New York City. The state’s recent small funding increases have done almost nothing to remedy the vast resource gaps identified by the courts in the CFE litigation and then exacerbated by deep funding cuts over the past five years.
In spite of the Governor Cuomo’s appointment of an education reform commission with a broad mandate to improve New York’s schools, almost no serious attention has been given to the critical issue of constitutional compliance to ensure that all students have what they need to succeed in school -- or to the specific actions that need to be taken to achieve this. The Safeguarding Sound Basic Education project strives to fill this gap.
Since April 2011, the Campaign has been conducting research, legal and policy analysis, and public engagement with the goal of producing new information, legal strategies, policy proposals, and advocacy tools to safeguard the right of New York students to a sound basic education. We have published a constitutional analysis of children’s right to a sound basic education in difficult economic times, conducted statewide research amassing evidence about the availability of essential resources and services in high needs schools, developed and published an authoritative analysis of all of the relevant judicial, legislative, and regulatory require­ments that relate to constitutional compliance and implementation of the New York State Learning Standards, and forged a new statewide alliance of supporters.
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)). 
For further reading, see Michael Rebell's law review article on judicial responses to budget cuts. Safeguarding the Right to a Sound Basic Education in Times of Fiscal Constraint, 75 Alb L. Rev 1855 (2012).