Differences and Dialogue: School Finance in New York State


As a nation, we have always recognized the importance of educationand the need for universal access to public schooling. In 1832, Abraham Lincoln described education “as the most important subject which we as a people can be engaged in.” And over one hundred years later in Brown v.Board of Education, the Supreme Court observed:

[Education] is the very foundation of good citizenship. Today it is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment. In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education.

Public schools can provide a ladder to success for all children by striving to eradicate class-based distinctions. But public schools can also close doors of opportunity to a generation of underprivileged children.

Education in New York State is a tale of two systems–one that provides the best our affluent society can offer, and another that represents society’s most egregious failings. Wealthy suburbs provide their children with the best facilities, teachers and opportunities, while many of the over a million New York City children attend school in crumbling buildings, with unlicensed teachers. Children understand these disparities better than anyone, as a Bronx high school student reminds us in Savage Inequalities, Jonathan Kozol’s study of school district inequality:

See . . . the parents of rich children have the money to get into better schools. Then, after a while, they begin to say, ‘Well I have this. Why not keep it for my children?’ In other words, it locks them into the idea of always having something more. After that, these things–the extra things they have–are seen like an inheritance. They feel it’s theirs and they don’t understand why we should question it.

Our collective future demands that all children receive the best possible education.

New York State has one of the highest spending rates per pupil. But this fact alone tells an incomplete story since a significant portion of educational spending comes from local revenues; such an expenditure scheme exacerbates the income disparity between the wealthiest and poorest districts. Furthermore, tremendous inequalities in the distribution of state funds exist, despite the state constitutional mandate that “legislature shall provide for the maintenance and support of a system of free common schools wherein all the children of this state may be educated.”

Accordingly, state educational reformers have the task of ensuring that New York meets its constitutional responsibilities, and that proposed solutions to funding disparities have adequate public support. A judicial solution often mandates action that may not garner public support. TheLegislature and the Governor have responded to the education lobby and public sentiment by emphasizing educational funding in the last several budget cycles, but even if the State Legislature is willing to increase educational spending, its agenda does not seek to eliminate funding discrepancies between New York City and other parts of the State. It follows that in the current climate, the judicial system is the most effective vehicle for change.

In 1993, Campaign For Fiscal Equity, a not-for-profit organization, began a major challenge to the state’s educational system. Their first important victory came in 1995, in Campaign for Fiscal Equity, Inc. v. State (CFE). In CFE, the New York Court of Appeals denied a motion for summary judgment and in doing so redefined the constitutional meaning of a “sound basic education.” The lawsuit, currently awaiting trial in mid-1999, seeks to radically alter the state finance system.

CFE and other impact litigation should not be the only alternative tolegislative and executive action. This article will discuss another alterna-tive: a community dialogic model that looks to solve state financing discrepancies. Section one will introduce the community dialogic model andexplain some failures of the current New York system. Section two will examine the community dialogic solution in depth; section three will look at the failures of the State legislature. Section four will discuss judicial efforts to eliminate funding inequalities. The final section will analyzewhether the CFE plaintiffs effectively apply a community dialogic model to their litigation strategy.

Suggested Reading