Imagine all the things one could buy with 14.8 billion dollars. This is the money promised to the New York City school system. But after many years of legal battles between the Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) and New York State, the city has not yet received it.
Founded in 1993, the CFE is a philanthropist-funded organization whose goal is to ensure that all New York City students are provided with the constitutional right to what it calls a “sound basic education.” After 12 years of legal battles, in 2005 the New York State Supreme Court ruled that New York City schools required an additional $5.6 billion annually simply to operate, as well as $9.2 billion within the next five years to ensure adequate facilities in which students could learn. Yet despite this apparent success, the battle continues today.
The CFE spent the first 13 years of its existence fighting the state’s public school finance system, which it argued was unfair to New York City children. According to the CFE, the underfunding of NYC schools prevented students from receiving a high school education that prepared them to “function productively as civic participants.” After eight years, in 2001, the State Supreme court ruled the New York City education budget unconstitutional. The Governor at the time, George Pataki, appealed the legitimacy of the ruling to the appellate division, the first department of the State Supreme Court, which overruled it a year later, in 2002. Pataki argued the state should not have to provide extra funding, and that an eighth grade education was enough to prepare students to be competitive in the workplace.
Stuyvesant teachers strongly disagree.
“A high school education is vital. It’s about learning to think, to understand the world in all its complexities, to see the world through a variety of lenses,” Assistant Principal English Eric Grossman said. “I could not disagree [with Pataki] more.”
The decision was reversed again in 2003, and the state was given until until July 2004 to comply with the order. July 2004 came and went, and the state failed to do anything. Justice Leland DeGrasse took matters into his own hands, appointing three referees to deal with the State and submit a compliance plan to the State by December. After legal hearings with the CFE and State, the referees determined that $5.63 billion was required in operating costs and an additional $9.2 billion was needed for the improvement of facilities.
In November 2006, after many appeals by both parties, the Court of Appeals decided that the courts lacked sufficient authority to dictate state spending, and simply suggested that the State consider at least a $2 billion increase in annual operating funds. According to the CFE’s Web site, the $2 billion increase is “a final enforceable order by the state’s highest court on a state constitutional matter and is not subject to appeal as long as the state meets its minimum funding obligation of $1.93 billion in 2004 dollars plus inflation by the 2010-2011 school year.” Although the court recommended giving more, it would not mandate it, nor would it say anything else on the matter unless its order was not met.
“The Court of Appeals decision is a victory for every school district in the state that struggles to find resources to support its public schools,” said Timothy G. Kremer, New York State School Boards Association Executive Director, in a December 2003 legislative update on the New York State Assembly Web site.
New York City Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein agrees, but fears that the slow execution has already been costly.
“Every delay in implementing the court’s rulings diminishes our children’s opportunities,” Klein said in the same legislative update.
Parents, teachers, and education advocates from elsewhere in the state have not been as supportive of the ruling for fear of losing funding for their own schools. However Midstate School Finance Consortium Brandon L. Gordon argued that the ruling ought to be upheld even if it might negatively affect some upstate schools.
“[T]his is not an upstate versus downstate issue,” Gordon said in the December 2003 update, “but quite frankly, the issue that we’re all talking about is about the right for every child in the state to a sound basic education.”
The battle isn’t over yet. Governor David Paterson’s new budget proposal would delay the money by four more years. What is more, it will take away from what was given last year. Even so, the CFE is not giving up and officials are already back to work, consulting with their lawyers.
“The proposed education budget zeros out classroom aid increases for the next two years, and stretches out the Campaign for Fiscal Equity agreement to seven years instead of four,” Geri D. Palast, Executive for the CFE, said in a March 2009 release on the CFE website. “The school children of New York are being asked to give more than their fair share.”
The Effects on Schools
Instead of improvements, such as decreasing class size and increasing extracurricular and class opportunities, New York City schools are being forced to eliminate after-school programs, increase class sizes, and decrease theatre, dance, and art programs.
Stuyvesant too is going to suffer from a lack of funding. In class sign-ups for the fall term a notice warns that due to budget cuts, students may not get all their requests. Principal Stanley Teitel announced at the February Student Leadership Team meeting that he would probably give seniors full schedules if they requested them, but that juniors will get only one elective, and underclassmen, none. Electives themselves—such as Writers’ Workshop—are being eliminated. “The mayor asked every department to cut 5 percent,” Teitel said. “Now just so you know, 5 percent of our budget is about three quarters of a million dollars.”
Stuyvesant is even losing one of its most sought-after offerings: classes appropriate for every level, no matter how high. In many departments, classes at or above the Advanced Placement (AP) level—such as AP French Literature—are being eliminated, especially as the College Board itself cuts tests.
It’s not entirely clear what the extent of the effects will be, but Assistant Principal English Eric Grossman described all possibilities as “wretched.”
“[Electives and extracurriculars] are tremendously vital,” Grossman said. “In many cases the greatest learning goes on outside the classroom. I constantly see students applying experiences in those activities to classroom instruction.”
In light of the Governor’s proposed budget cuts, the CFE has redoubled its efforts to guarantee funds for city schools.
“With stimulus funds and [additional taxes], there is no excuse for robbing our children of their fair share of the available resources to provide the education necessary to build their futures,” Palast said. “Our fight will continue.”