In an apparent response to the passage of legislation last spring that provided space in public school buildings or subsidized rent to charter schools in New York City, the families of seven students who attend the Northeast Charter Schools Network (“NECSN”) schools in Buffalo and Rochester, along with NECSN itself, initiated a lawsuit against the state on Monday, September 15. The suit, Brown v. State of New York, seems to directly take aim at the state’s failure to provide publicly funded charter schools outside of New York City with rent-free facilities or adequate funding to secure and maintain educational facilities. Plaintiffs contend that the state’s funding scheme denies students in publicly funded charter schools – the vast majority of whom are racial and ethnic minorities from low-income households – their constitutional rights to a sound basic education and equal protection under the law.
The plaintiffs explicitly rely on the Court of Appeals’ 1995 and 2003 holdings in Campaign for Fiscal Equity, Inc. v. the State of New York in crafting their charge that the state has failed to meet its constitutional obligation to provide the public charter school students with a sound basic education. In making this charge, the plaintiffs concede that virtually none of the students in Buffalo or Rochester – whether attending traditional public schools or charter public schools – are receiving the sound basic education to which they are entitled under the state constitution. According to plaintiffs, “[f]or all but the most privileged families, Buffalo and Rochester are educational deserts that starve our most vulnerable children of all meaningful access to the American dream.” It is in the context of this educational desert, where, for example, 45 of Buffalo’s 57 traditional public schools were given a failing grade under Department of Education standards as recently as 2013, plaintiffs allege, that the import of charter schools as a “glimmer of hope” for these children to obtain a sound basic education becomes clear. Plaintiffs allege that there are thousands of children on the waiting list to attend charter schools in the state, and that adequate funding would enable NECSN to better serve its currently enrolled students and expand its facilities to provide services to more students.
The plaintiffs specifically take issue with what they contend is an inequitable funding scheme that results in students attending publicly funded charter schools receiving only 60 cents for every dollar that students attending traditional public schools in Buffalo receive. Exacerbating these funding disparities, the plaintiffs allege, is the lack of consistent funding for public charter school facilities, which forces the charter schools to divert their already constrained resources away from instrumentalities of education and instruction to basic building needs. Thus, plaintiffs’ claim, in addition to lacking “sufficient classrooms, gymnasiums, libraries, science labs, computer labs, cafeterias, common rooms, employee offices, and athletic fields,” the academic proficiency of charter schools is also made to suffer due to the state’s failure to provide these schools with adequate funding.
Plaintiffs seek two forms of relief from the court: (i) a declaratory judgment finding the state’s public charter school education financing scheme unconstitutional, and (ii) injunctive relief preventing the state from withholding adequate facilities funding from public charter schools.