Institute Forum

Summary: Fiscal Challenges Tests Students’ Right to Sound Education June 20, 2012

Fiscal Challenges Test Students’ Right to Sound Education

New York courts have upheld the constitutional right of schoolchildren to a “sound, basic education” that prepares them for work and civic participation. But as the state continues to struggle with fiscal challenges in the aftermath of the Great Recession, students are being shortchanged, according to Michael Rebell, who heads The Campaign for Educational Equity at Teachers College, Columbia University.

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“The law is not being honored. And despite the economic recession and its aftermath, it should and it could be honored,” Rebell told a forum assembled at the Rockefeller Institute.

Rebell, who successfully litigated a lawsuit challenging school funding, CFE v. State of New York, led the June 20 discussion, titled “Safeguarding the Right to a Sound Basic Education in Times of Fiscal Constraint.” Responding to his comments were attorney John Faso of Manatt, Phelps & Phillips and Robert N. Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents.

Basing his remarks on an upcoming paper for the Albany Law Review, Rebell estimated that state funding to schools should have increased by about $5 billion more than it did between 2007 and 2011, using 2007 legislated funding increases as a benchmark. The Legislature enacted education finance reforms in 2007 in response to the CFE case.

More important than the actual funding shortfall, however, is the impact that budget cuts have had on schools and students, Rebell said. Preliminary results from a review of state schools by the Campaign for Education Equity show: decreased academic opportunities for all students in core subjects such as science; inconsistencies in delivery of special education services; increased pressure on superintendents and principals; and declines in basic safety and discipline in some schools.

Rebell called on state leaders to develop a plan for improving schools’ performance. He suggested five actions the state could take to reduce school costs without undermining education:

Faso, the former minority leader in the state Assembly and the 2006 Republican candidate for governor, said the CFE decision brought the important issue of school financing into focus for state legislators. He nonetheless said the decision is flawed, as the courts should not have attempted to sever the Legislature’s consideration of school financing from overall fiscal realities and other concerns.

“The premise of the sound basic education as overriding all other … policy considerations which the Legislature and the Governor might have is one that fundamentally cannot stand on its own,” Faso said.

Faso agreed with some of Rebell’s suggestions for cutting the state’s education spending, including the need for better mandate relief and pension reform.

Lowry emphasized the budget strain that schools are experiencing as local governments feel the impact of the recent economic downturn. In the last two or three years, growing numbers of school district officials have inquired about bankruptcy, he said. School districts may not legally declare bankruptcy, but Lowry said their questions alone highlight the state’s failure to fulfill its obligation to finance education adequately.

“The state has essentially abandoned the promises of the 2007 reforms without coming out and saying that is has,” Lowry said.

The state Education Department projects a school budget deficit of 28 percent by the 2016-2017 academic year. Lowry said that means schools will need to continue to reduce spending, and that the cuts will result in teacher layoffs — ultimately affecting the quality of instruction.

Lowry supported Rebell’s ideas for cost savings, including retaining teachers. He is concerned, he said, that the state’s new teacher evaluations could have a negative impact on teacher morale.


ABOUT THE ROCKEFELLER INSTITUTE OF GOVERNMENT

The Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government, the public policy research arm of the State University of New York, conducts fiscal and programmatic research on American state and local governments. It works closely with federal, state, and local government agencies nationally and in New York, and draws on the State University’s rich intellectual resources and on networks of public policy academic experts throughout the country.