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NYS Needs To Define What A Sound Education Is, Then Make It Work

After 13 years, the Small Cities education funding lawsuit is no closer to being decided than it was the day it was filed in 2008.

The case has been decided twice in state Supreme Court, reached the state’s highest court in its first go-round and is now in its second set of appeals.

Arguments in the Small Cities case, and in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity case that came before it, present a mind-boggling juxtaposition — a state that spends the most money per pupil on education is being sued for not spending enough in small city districts.

We have said before that the problem with state education funding isn’t the total amount of spending, but the way that money is spent. A related problem is the unwillingness of the state Legislature to make any effort to streamline the delivery of education services in New York state, as we wrote last week.

Re-reading the appellate court rulings in the Small Cities school lawsuit and the most recent oral arguments reveals a more basic problem with state education policy — what constitutes a sound, basic education? Judges find themselves in a difficult place, because deciding in favor of the school districts makes the judges, in effect, legislators. Doing nothing flies in the face of the court’s precedent in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity decision in 2006. That fight, we note, took 13 years as well.

Education policy changes often in New York state. The state Board of Regents is in the midst of discussions about changing the state’s graduation requirements. In our view, the Regents should answer a bigger question — what constitutes the sound, basic education that makes those graduation requirements actually mean something? The state Legislature made an attempt at such work in 2007 when it worked with Gov. Eliot Spitzer to pass the State Education Budget and Reform Act of 2007, but that was quickly set aside when the 2008-10 recession hit. That legislation was problemmatic because it only dealt with state school aid and not the state’s expectations of school districts. It’s a key distinction to make in light of the argument by the state Attorney General’s office last week in the Small Cities lawsuit that many services needed to ensure at-risk students actually make it to graduation day aren’t actually required to provide a sound, basic education. That line of thinking makes no sense in the context of providing an education to children.

New York’s students, taxpayers, teachers and school administrators should not have to wait 13 years to find out what a sound, basic education is. The state should define a sound education — and then find a way to make it work within a reasonable amount of spending.

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