In 2009, eight small city school districts in upstate New York filed an adequacy challenge to the state’s education funding system. The plaintiffs alleged that the state government was failing to provide their schools with the funding and resources they require to meet students’ needs.
After a lengthy series of procedural motions and appeals, a trial was finally held in the case, Maisto v. State of New York, in the spring of 2016. Later that year, the trial judge, Kimberly O’Connor, issued a decision that rejected plaintiffs’ claims and dismissed the case. That decision was rejected last year by the Appellate Division, Third Department, which held that her ruling lacked sufficient findings of fact concerning the adequacy of resources and educational outcomes in each of the eight districts.
The intermediate appeals court also rejected Justice O’Connor’s conclusion that the main legal precedent on educational adequacy in New York State, Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. State of New York (CFE), was no longer relevant. The Appellate Division, noting that the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, had reaffirmed the continued relevance of the CFE precedent in a recent 2017 decision, remanded the case. The court instructed Justice O’Connor to review the voluminous evidence and provide specific findings of fact for each of the eight school districts regarding the needs of its respective students and determine the extent to which there is a direct causal link between insufficient state funding and the unsatisfactory performance levels of the students in those districts.
On January 10, 2019, Justice O’Connor issued a 113-page opinion that again concluded plaintiffs had failed to meet their burden of proof and that the case should be dismissed.
In her current ruling, Justice O’Connor acknowledged that the educational outputs in all eight districts are “undeniably inadequate” and concentrated on the question of whether resource inputs were inadequate and, therefore, caused the unacceptable outcomes. She systematically examined issues of class size, teacher qualifications, facilities, instrumentalities of learning, and supplemental services for “at-risk” students in each of the districts. She then concluded that resources were adequate in all of these areas in all of the districts and that the basic cause of the inadequate outcomes was “ineffective leadership” and failures to “reevaluate … operations and allocation of resources.”
In reaching these conclusions, Justice O’Connor again appeared to be relying on questionable interpretations of the applicable CFE precedents. For example, although the Court of Appeals specifically held in CFE that the courts cannot “accept the premise that children come to the New York City schools ineducable, unfit to learn,” Justice O’Connor held:
A common thread of the testimony offered by each witness for the plaintiffs was that the school must provide supplemental services to students to address their challenges outside of school, including poverty, breakdown of the family structure, absence of parental guidance, challenges in communication, such as English as a second language, etc. …[H]owever, it is not the core mission of the educational system to repair these outside social concerns and problems.
Accordingly, although the plaintiffs established that in every one of the eight districts many at-risk students were not receiving the full extent of supplemental academic intervention services required by state law, the court held that full compliance was “aspirational” and not a constitutional requirement.
In regard to class size, teacher qualifications, and most other educational resources, Justice O’Connor’s criterion for decision was the extent to which the resources available in each of the school districts roughly approximated the average in schools throughout the state—even though the Court of Appeals made clear in CFE that the applicable standard is whether the available resources are sufficient to provide students the opportunity for a “sound basic education.” In the absence of evidence of how many other students throughout the state are currently being denied the opportunity for a sound basic education, such heavy emphasis on comparisons with statewide averages lack fundamental credibility.
Finally, in spite of the Court of Appeals’ holding in CFE that “We are, of course, bound to decide this case on the record before us and cannot conjecture about the possible effect of pending reforms…when determining whether…a constitutional violation exists,” Justice O’Connor described and lauded efforts that most of the districts had recently initiated to try to deal with their extensive educational problems.
The plaintiffs have indicated that they will appeal this decision to the Appellate Division.