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New York Governor Changes His Position on Eighth-Grade Standard As Appeal Proceeds

As of September 13, the New York State Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, accepted jurisdiction in Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) v. State. CFE is appealing the June 25, 2002 Appellate Court decision, which overturned the January 10, 2001 trial court ruling of judge Leland DeGrasse, which found New York's school funding system unconstitutional. The Appellate Division held that New York's Constitution only requires that the state fund an eighth-grade education. CFE, which submitted a notice of appeal in July, plans to file its brief in mid-October.

Even before the parties received notice that the Court of Appeals was taking jurisdiction, however, the governor announced that he was changing his position on a major issue in the case. In a September 11 speech to a small group of parents and teachers at Pace University, Governor George Pataki, who is running for a third term against Democrat Carl McCall and Independent Tom Golisano, said that an eighth-grade education is not an adequate minimum standard for New York's schools: "Anybody who thinks an eighth-grade education is adequate is 100 percent wrong."

The governor's remarks contradicted the position that he and the other State defednats have taken in the CFE since the trial began in October 1999. The Appellate Court's ruling, including its eighth-grade standard, was consistent with what the governor's lawyers requested. Although expert witnesses for both sides at the trial had agreed that the Regents Competency Test ("RCTs") measure "eighth-grade reading and sixth grade arithmetic skills," attorneys for the State defendants argued in their appellate brief that the RCTs "serve as a reliable measure of the skills necessary for civic participation as a voter and juror, which is what the Education article requires." The State's attorneys, furthermore, have consistently argued that the new Regents' Learning Standards, which are being phased in to replace the RCTs and must be mastered by all New York students in order for them to receive high school diplomas, are "aspirational goals" for which the State is not obligated to ensure adequate funding.

On September 12, CFE responded to the governor's statement by calling on him to translate his words into action. Michael Rebell, Executive Director of CFE, urged the governor to "denounce the appellate court's decision and sit down with CFE to settle the case immediately." As of September 20, one day after the Alliance for Quality Education held a press conference calling on the governor to propose a settlement, a spokesman for Governor Pataki said that the governor might be ready to talk. "So if they [CFE] have something tangible to offer regarding a settlement," said Joe Conway, "I'm sure the state's lawyers would be willing to listen."

Prepared September 20, 2002