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Petitioner Challenges NY Financing Methods of Public Schools



Within the framework of this litigation are found dual challenges to New York’s method of financing elementary and secondary public school education. Proceeding upon separate but related theories, two groups of plaintiffs each seek a judgment declaring that such method of educational financing violates provisions of the federal and state constitutions. The group of plaintiffs responsible for instituting the action as it was originally constituted is, for the sake of clarity and convenience, referred to as the “Original Plaintiffs.” This group is comprised of 27 school districts situated in 13 counties and 12 school children, represented by their parents or guardians, who are students in public elementary or secondary schools operated by 7 of the plaintiff school districts.

After an action had been instituted by the original plaintiffs, a second group of plaintiffs sought and was granted the right to intervene in that action. That group is referred to as the “Plaintiffs-Intervenors” and sometimes as the “Intervenors.” It includes the Boards of Education of the cities of New York, Rochester, Buffalo and Syracuse; the City of New York itself; certain officials of the so-called “Big Four” cities; the United Parents Associations of New York, Inc.; and 12 school children, represented by their parents or guardians, who are students in public schools operated by the named city school districts. The Board of Education of the City of Buffalo was included as one of the original plaintiffs and thus is a member of both groups of plaintiffs.

The defendants are the Commissioner of Education of the State of New York, The University of the State of New York, the Comptroller of the State of New York, and the Commissioner of Taxation and Finance of the State of New York.

The original plaintiffs set forth three causes of action in their complaint. The first cause of action contains allegations delineating facts which are alleged constitute a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the State Constitution (Art. I, Sec. 11). More particularly, the first cause of action’s essential allegations embraces the matters that follow. New York has created over 700 school districts with power to levy and collect taxes on the real property within district boundaries and to retain such tax revenues to finance public education within each district. Cities with populations exceeding 125,000 have themselves been given similar powers. By decision of the State, local property taxes are the primary source of funds for the support of public elementary and secondary education. The school districts have grossly unequal amounts of real property wealth. Because of this, the application of any given tax rate yields grossly unequal revenues per pupil. Districts poorer in real property wealth, such as the plaintiff districts, levy taxes at substantially higher rates than neighboring districts having greater real property wealth but are unable to match the latter in expenditures per child or in the provision of educational services.

Although the State contributes from its general revenues to supplement local tax revenues, such state aid does not eliminate the gross disparities in the allocation of education resources caused by the decision to rely chiefly on the local property tax to finance public elementary and secondary education.

The formula contained in the Education Law to supplement locally raised revenues is structurally unable to remedy the disparities caused by the decision to rely chiefly on the local real property tax to finance public education. Because the State’s school finance system relies principally on local real property taxes and because the state aid program does not eliminate the disparities produced by such reliance, there have been and will continue to be gross disparities in per pupil expenditures among the districts. Those disparities are a function of the uneven distribution of real property wealth among the school districts.

The disparities in expenditures per pupil resulting from variations in local real property wealth produce substantial differences in what school districts are able to provide for their pupils. Districts that are poorer in real property wealth, such as the plaintiff districts, cannot match the ability of districts with greater real property wealth to offer educational advantages such as: small class size; experienced and effective teachers; low pupil-teacher ratios; curricular breadth; extensive extra-curricular programs; modern equipment; and special programs for the disadvantage or the specially gifted.

By virtue of the foregoing, the original plaintiffs assert in their first cause of action that the State’s method of financing public education “denies to plaintiff students and their parents those educational resources available to students in other, wealthier districts in the State.” Further, that such system prevents the plaintiff districts from carrying out their full responsibilities and obligations to the schools, parents and children and compels them to offer an education inferior to that offered by other districts possessing greater real property wealth.

In the second cause of action facts are described that are alleged to constitute a violation of the Education Article of the State Constitution (Art. XI, Sec. 1). The gist of the allegations follows. The Education Article requires the State to create a state-wide system of free common schools in which all children may be educated. It is alleged that the State has failed to meet that obligation. The method chosen by the State for financing public schools does not create any uniform state-wide system. Rather, it establishes over 700 different school systems with widely differing capacities to provide educational resources to which the State has delegated its own constitutional responsibility to establish and finance public schools where all the children of the State may be educated. Because such method compels each district to depend on its own local property wealth as the primary measure of resources available for its children’s education, and because those resources vary greatly from district to district, there is no uniformity in resources available for educational purposes from one district to another.

Accordingly, there is no assurance that any two pupils, who are alike except for their place of residence being in different school districts, will be afforded equivalent educational advantages. By accident of greater real property wealth, one district may be able to offer a group of educational features which another district, by the accident of having lesser property wealth, is unable to offer its pupils. In choosing a school finance system that permits such gross disparities to exist, the State has failed to meet its constitutional obligation to provide a “system” in which “all the children” of the State may be “educated.”

In summary, by making the extent to which a child may be educated a function of the real property wealth of the school district in which that child happens to reside, or the school district in which that child’s parents are able to afford to live, the State has violated the democratic and egalitarian intention that underlies the Education Article, substituting in its stead an impermissible reliance on the accident of real property wealth as the ultimate determinant of the quality of education available to the children in any particular part of the State.

The third cause of action sets forth facts which are then alleged to constitute a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Federal Constitution. The essence of these allegations follows. It is first alleged that the Federal Equal Protection Clause forbids a State to make allocation of educational resources among its school children a function of real property wealth in the school districts where the children happen to reside.

Because the State’s school finance system relies chiefly on revenues generated by local property taxes and because the State’s own basic aid formula is inadequate to compensate for the disparities caused by such reliance, the level of expenditures for any child’s public school education and the consequent quantity and quality of educational services available to him are a function of the real property wealth of the school district in which he lives.

By reason of the foregoing, it is alleged that the State’s financing system violates the Federal Equal Protection Clause. The following statement in the Court’s decision on the Defendants’ motion for summary judgment rendered April 9, 1976 (at p. 2) is pertinent to this cause of action: “That portion of the original plaintiffs’ action which alleges violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Federal Constitution is not being pressed in the light of the United States Supreme Court decision in San Antonio School District v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 1 (93 S.Ct. 1278, 36 L.Ed.2d 16). That claim has not been abandoned but expressly reserved in the event the Supreme Court reconsiders its holding in the last cited case.

In carrying out its constitutional obligation to provide for the maintenance and support of a system of free public schools, the state long ago elected to delegate a portion of its obligation to local districts that were empowered to generate funds by local real property taxes. As the evidence has shown, the capabilities of districts to raise tax monies have been influenced by the size of the tax base available for the imposition of tax levies. The development of state aid to public education was made necessary to compensate for the variances among districts in their capacity to provide educational financing. The system for providing funds to finance public education is thus made up of a local component and a state-furnished component. The creation of school districts to aid the state in discharging its obligation was certainly a legitimate option open to the Legislature, and this appears to be recognized by the original plaintiffs. Implicit in the long history of state aid to education has been the state’s recognition that additional financing over and above that generated by local tax revenues was needed in order for the state to discharge its constitutional obligation. It is the end product which has emerged from use of several methods selected by the state to finance public education that is being examined for constitutional compliance. To isolate the division of the state into school districts possessing varying amounts of property wealth and from that circumstance find an impermissible classification according to wealth is not warranted.

The strict scrutiny standard may be applied if the right to education is a fundamental right entitled to special constitutional protection, in which event the alleged statutory discrimination is examined to determine whether it is required by a compelling state interest. For federal equal protection purposes education is not a fundamental right.. The question then is whether education has a different status for purposes of state equal protection analysis and review. Unlike the situation in Rodriguez, where the court found that education was nowhere mentioned in the Federal Constitution, the Education Article of New York’s Constitutional specifically guarantees a free education to all the state’s children. The historical development of state aid to education in New York, which has already been traced both before and after the adoption of an education clause as part of the State’s Constitution in 1894, renders difficult any conclusion other than that education is an interest of great state importance.

A rational basis for discriminatory treatment is not established, as the defendants have sought to do, by isolating components of the state aid scheme and urging that individually they bear a substantial relation to the statutory purpose. It is the totality of the formula and its operative effect that has been challenged rather than the rationality of any discrete element. The evidence amply supports the conclusion that the plenary operation of the state aid formula does not bear a rational relation to the objectives for which it was devised. It is the irrationality of the manner in which the state aid system actually operates that causes it to fail the rational basis test for compliance with equal protection requirements of the State Constitution.

The Court expresses its appreciation to all the attorneys who had a role in the presentation of this case during and after trial. They are commended for the thoroughly professional manner in which the case was tried and for the comprehensive post-trial submissions which reflected great diligence and effort.

If you are facing a similar situation, seek the legal representation of Stephen Bilkis and Associates. They have offices throughout the New York City area, including offices Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, Long Island, Nassau County, Suffolk County and Westchester County.

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