New York Students’ Rights Get a Day in Court

Over the past few years, the Campaign for Educational Equity’s independent research findings and policy proposals have been reviewed and utilized by parent and youth activists, educators, advocacy groups, lawyers, legislators, and others throughout New York State and far beyond. These groups have used our information to advance the cause of educational equity for all children in a variety of ways, including in the courts.

One of the organizations that has made extensive use of our work is New Yorkers for Students’ Educational Rights, which this past February sued the State of New York on behalf of students who have been denied an adequate education by the state.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014, Justice Manuel J. Mendez of the New York State Supreme Court will hear oral arguments regarding the state’s motion to dismiss in New Yorkers for Students’ Educational Rights (NYSER) v. the State of New York. This case is a follow-up to the landmark decision, Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) v. the State of New York, in which the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, ruled that students in New York City were being denied their constitutional right to the opportunity for a “sound basic education.” That constitutional right applies, of course, to all students in the State of New York.

In order to comply with the court’s order, the state legislature in 2007 reformed the system for funding public education and committed the state to increasing funding by $5 billion for New York City’s schools and $4 billion for the rest of the state, to be phased in over a four-year period. Although the state met its obligations for the first two years, once the recession took effect in 2009, the state first froze further increases and then drastically cut state aid for education. Despite incremental increases in school funding over the past few years, the state is still over $5 billion short of providing the amounts that the legislature itself determined to be necessary to provide all students at least a sound basic education.

Last spring, after a coalition of statewide and citywide organizations and about a dozen individual parents filed the NYSER complaint, the state filed a “motion to dismiss.” In it they argued, among other things, that NYSER and the individual plaintiffs lack standing to bring this statewide suit, and that because New York State spends more money on education than any other state, it is meeting its constitutional obligations. The plaintiffs filed a reply brief that argued that their standing is clear, since NYSER and the individual parents, have the same status as did CFE and individual plaintiffs in that landmark case, that amounts spent in other states are irrelevant to constitutional issues in New York State, and that, since the state is not funding its own formula and has not undertaken a new cost study in the past 10 years, it clearly is not complying with the courts’ orders in CFE. Moreover, they claim, the state is not even in a position to assert that it is in constitutional compliance, since it has undertaken no surveys or school visits to assess the educational impact of the deep cuts they made during the recession and what services students in New York City and other parts of the state are currently receiving. (Copies of all of the papers filed in the NYSER litigation are available at www.nyser.org. The plaintiff attorneys are Michael A. Rebell and a four-person team from Bingham McCutchen LLP.)

All of these issues will be argued in detail in the court hearing this coming Wednesday. The public is invited to attend. The argument is scheduled to begin at 2:15 p.m. on Wednesday, October 22nd, at the Supreme Court Annex building, 71 Thomas Street (between West Broadway and Church Streets), in lower Manhattan, courtroom of Justice Manuel J. Mendez.

Please stay tuned for more updates about the NYSER case, related cases ongoing in New York, as well the other individuals and organizations that are using our work to fight with and for students, parents, and communities.

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Social Studies: A Right, Not a Privilege – Chancellor Fariña Promises to Reinstate Social Studies

Our team read with great relief that NYC Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña has acknowledged the horrifying fact that “a lot” of NYC elementary and middle schools have dropped social studies. She makes it crystal clear that, under her administration, depriving students of a strong social-studies curriculum is unacceptable. Her remarks, however, fall short of explaining why so many schools dropped or skimped on a subject as essential as social studies.

The truth is that state funding to schools fell dramatically at the same time as the state ramped up pressure for students to perform on high-stakes standardized tests in English and math. With bare-bones budgets, school-level educators and administrators in New York City and other underfunded school districts had no choice but to look for ways to cut corners. Students have paid the price. Many students lost not only social studies, but instructional time and supports in other important subjects as well; science, the arts, physical education, library sciences, foreign languages, and family and career studies.

The chancellor should get credit for speaking out about the educational neglect that thousands of New York children experience every day. She is right about how important it is that students “don’t think everything begins and ends in their local neighborhoods.” But let’s be clear: providing students with the social studies curriculum and essential related activities, like field trips, that they need to become capable civic participants or, as Fariña calls them, “global citizens,” isn’t just the right thing to do—these learning opportunities are part of the sound basic education to which all New York students have a right.

Ensuring that all children and families, not just a select few, receive ample access to these opportunities will require more money. Where in the NYC Department of Education’s current budget will this money for social studies come from? Is there sufficient funding in the current budget to enrich social studies and also reinstate arts education, hire librarians, provide physical education and languages other than English, and ensure needed supports for English language learners, among many other essential opportunities and supports to which thousands of students currently lack sufficient access?

Social studies is vitally important. And, since taking office, the chancellor has made a number of other exciting but piecemeal promises about the types and quality of learning opportunities that students can expect under her leadership. What we have yet to see is the new NYC DOE’s vision to ensure all students the full range of learning opportunities to which they are entitled. What is the timeline and strategy for investigating and addressing the full set of constitutional violations that continue to undermine educational opportunities?

At some point, the city must acknowledge publicly that to honor these promises to respect the state constitution and to restore the all of the essentials that make up students’ right to the “opportunity for a sound basic education” will require that New York State make good on its school-funding obligations. Each day that the chancellor and the mayor delay joining CEE, students, parents, and advocacy allies throughout the state in calling on the state government to fulfill its constitutional obligation is another day of missed opportunities for New York children.