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NYCLU v. State of New York (Defending right to sound basic public education)

This case sought to extend the promise of Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) v. State of New York, 86 N.Y.2d 307, 631 N.Y.S.2d 565 (1995) to children outside of New York City and seeks to compel the state to provide children in “failing schools” beyond the geographic limits of the city with the “opportunity” to receive “a sound basic education.” Around the state, there are a significant number of schools whose facilities, pedagogical resources and curricular materials are so deficient and whose learning environment is so impoverished as to effectively deny to the children assigned to such schools “the opportunity” to receive a “sound basic education,” required by state law (see Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) v. State of New York). As a result, many students leave school without the skills necessary to function productively or even competently within our society. Yet, despite the common awareness of the inadequate nature of these schools, state officials have failed to take appropriate steps to remedy these deficiencies. In this lawsuit, plaintiffs asserted that, in failing to take corrective action, state officials are violating their clear constitutional obligation to provide children with the “opportunity” to receive “a sound basic education.” Plaintiffs sought declaratory and injunctive relief to compel state officials to comply with their constitutional obligations under Article XI § 1 of the New York Constitution.

On June 26, 2002, the Supreme Court dismissed the suit upon the ground that plaintiffs had not alleged that the “inadequacies in facilities or staffing have been caused by some specific conduct or policy of the state defendants.” The NYCLU appealed the decision on Sept. 2, 2003. The appeal relied significantly on a June 2003 decision in the CFE case that strongly reaffirmed that the State is ultimately responsible for the failure to provide educational opportunity. Plaintiffs claimed that, under CFE, the Court of Appeals rejected every conclusion relied upon by the IAS Court in dismissing the plaintiffs’ constitutional claims in this case. Significantly, the decision in the CFE case made clear that plaintiffs’ obligation to assert that the state was “causally” responsible for the failure to provide “an opportunity” for “a sound basic education” could be satisfied with allegations “that increased funding can provide better teachers, facilities and instrumentalities of learning” and that “such improved inputs yield better student performance.”

On Jan. 29, 2004, the Appellate Division, Third Department affirmed the Supreme Court decision. The court held that the plaintiffs’ amended complaint was properly dismissed because it neither alleged nor reflected a district-wide or systemic failure. The court concluded that the schools in question were the responsibilities of their respective local school districts, and any state intervention was at the discretion of the Commissioner of Education. The NYCLU appealed from the Appellate Division to the New York Court of Appeals. The NYCLU argued that the Third Department misconstrued and misapplied the court’s decision in the CFE case, and that when, as alleged in this case, the state has failed to act or has acted so inadequately that massive numbers of students are being denied the educational opportunity promised by the state Constitution, the state must be found to have caused the constitutional injury.

On Feb. 15, 2005, the New York State Court of Appeals upheld the lower-court decision, ruling that if the state were to intervene on a school-by-school basis it would “subvert local control and violate the constitutional principle that districts make the basic decisions on funding and operating their schools.” On March 15, 2005, the NYCLU filed a motion for reconsideration, which was denied. 

App. Div., 3rd Dept., Index No. 1778-01 (direct) 

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