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Court Of Appeals To Hear NYCLU’s Case On Behalf Of State’s “Failing Schools”

While Governor Pataki has turned his back on the Court of Appeals’ ruling on behalf of New York City schools, the state’s highest court next will preside over another lawsuit challenging the adequacy of education all across New York State. The New York Civil Liberties Union brings its case before the Court of Appeals January 11th on behalf of students, parents and teachers in “failing schools” throughout the state, outside of New York City.

More than 75,000 students, largely poor and people of color, are stuck in schools that are every bit as inadequate as failing schools in NYC.

“New York State has known about these problems for years, if not decades, but has turned its back on these children,” said Arthur Eisenberg, Legal Director of the NYCLU. “Now we look to the Court of Appeals to right these wrongs.”

The Court of Appeals will hear arguments Tuesday, January 11th at 2pm on schools the NYCLU has identified whose physical facilities, teaching resources and curricular materials are desperately deficient and whose academic performance is abysmal.

The case, New York Civil Liberties Union v. State of New York, rests upon earlier Court of Appeals decisions in a suit brought by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) on behalf of the New York City school children. In the CFE case, the Court of Appeals held, in 1995, that the Education Article of the New York Constitution requires the State to offer all children “the opportunity” to receive “a sound basic education.”

After consulting with parents, teachers, students and community leaders, the NYCLU examined student performance levels in 27 schools in 12 different school districts in upstate New York, Westchester County and Long Island where the performance levels of the children were abysmal. In these schools between 30-40% of the children were functionally illiterate and approximately 60% of the children were failing the state competency tests. Among the high schools examined only 4% to 27% of the children received regents’ diplomas.

The schools shared failing characteristics that included a highly transient teaching staff, inadequately trained teachers, inadequate textbooks and computers, decrepit facilities, overcrowded conditions, a failure to give adequate attention to the core curriculum, a lack of administrative leadership, class sizes too large for children with special needs, school buildings that house too many students to give children and parents a sense of community, lack of parent involvement, and inadequate programs in art, music and athletics.

The NYCLU filed a class action that focused on the 27 schools, which it regarded as representative of perhaps another 150-200 schools outside of New York City, and which by virtue of inadequate resources and abysmal performance levels must be regarded as “failing schools.”

The suit, which was filed in March 2001, proposed a remedy that also focused upon individual schools. The suit asserted that because the characteristics of failure may vary from school to school, an appropriate remedy would require state education officials to meet with local school officials, parents and community representatives, as well as education experts to develop, collectively, a remedial plan tailored to each of these failing schools. Under the NYCLU proposal, the state would then be required to implement these remedial plans.

The appeal, that will be argued January 11, 2005, stems from an Appellate Division decision that dismissed the suit on the grounds that constitutional claim under the Education Article can only be pursued if the educational inadequacy is “systemic”; that a systemic claim can only be established if the constitutional injury is “district-wide”; and that the NYCLU’s suit, which is “school-based” in its approach, does not allege “district-wide” inadequacies.

In response, the NYCLU contends that the CFE reasoning of the Court of Appeals in the CFE case does not foreclose a “school-based” approach toward school reform; that although the suit does not allege district-wide failure, it asserts persistent deficiencies in the specified schools and a systemic pattern of failure by the state to provide resources to correct those deficiencies; and that such an approach, with its promise to direct resources specifically to the deficiencies of individual schools offers the most effective means of providing meaningful educational opportunity for the children of the State.

Click to read the NYCLU’s appeals brief and the reply to the state. (Requires the free Adobe Reader.)

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