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Advocates say state needs to obey 10-year-old school aid court order

Melinda Shelton

It’s been 10 years since New York’s highest court ordered that more state money be paid to schools with the poorest children. But advocates say that since the 2006 ruling, many so-called high-need schools have fallen even further behind.

The Alliance for Quality Education looked at aid in the state budget allotted to 161 of the poorest schools among the more than 700 districts in New York.

The schools were supposed to get about $5.5 billion more in education aid after the state Court of Appeals ruled in 2006 in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, or CFE, case. Judges said education funding was inadequate, that it denied the students their constitutional right to a “sound, basic education.”

The court order was never fulfilled by governors and the legislature. As a result, said the Alliance’s Billy Easton, rural and urban school districts are still owed $2.8 billion.

“We found that out of 81 percent of high-need districts, that this budget would leave them behind,” said Easton. "And most are way behind.”

In 2007, then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer and the legislature implemented a four-year plan to phase in the funding required under the court order. But the 2008 recession derailed the program, and it’s never been restored, despite the gradual economic recovery.

In 2016, the State Board of Regents and the Democratic-led state Assembly supported restarting the phase-in, but Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Republicans in the state Senate did not support it. They contend that the state gave record funding increases to all schools for the past two years.

But Easton said the report finds that even at the overall rate of increases over the past couple of years, it could take decades or longer for the poorest schools to catch up to the amount they are owed under the court order. And he said schools where African-American and Latino students make up the majority are faring the worst.

“It would take those districts over five years or as much as 100 years to actually get their full funding at the rate that they are going from this budget,” Easton said.

Cuomo, in a conference call with upstate newspaper editorial boards last winter said Spitzer's plan to fulfill the court order used an “outrageously high number” for the amount of future funding.

Curtis Sutton, who has a son in seventh grade in the Albany city school system, said he’s seen the effects of inadequate funding. One of the biggest problems, he said, is a lack of teachers.

“You have a lot of distractions in the class, which take away from the lessons,” Sutton said.

He said his son is doing all right in school because he puts a lot of time into helping him learn, but he said other parents might not be able to do that.

Sutton said it sends the wrong message to children when adults don’t follow the law and obey a court order.

“Stand by your obligations, stand by your commitments,” he urged.

Alliance for Quality Education, which gets partial funding from the teachers union, hopes to make the underfunding an issue in the legislative elections in November.

Easton said he’s also hopeful about a newer lawsuit, filed in 2014 by eight small school city districts in New York, which is now winding its way through the courts. They are demanding that the obligations of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity court order be fulfilled.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.