Thursday, December 12, 2013
The superintendent of Schenectady schools in New York, Laurence Spring, plans to file an administrative complaint with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) on Friday. He alleges that his district is receiving $62 million less per year than the state had agreeded to in the school finance litigation from 2007. Spring concedes that Schenectady is not alone in its budget shortfall, but that by his calculations predominantly white schools are suffering a smaller per pupil shortfall than predominantly minority schools. In other words, the current funding formula in New York disparately impacts minorities in violation of the Department of Education's Title VI regulations. Spring emphasizes "This is not a school funding case — it’s an issue of discrimination. . . . New York state implements an educational funding structure which discriminates against students of color, English language learners and students with special needs.”
The substance of the claim--racially disparate funding--is not unique, not even in New York. The Campaign for Fiscal Equity made the same claim in regard to New York City schools and alleged a Title VI violation alongside of its state constitutional claims in the late 1990s, only to withdraw it after the Supreme Court in Alexander v. Sandoval held that not private right of action exists to enforce disparate impact regulations. This current claim, however, is distinct in terms of the forum in which it is made and who is making it.
OCR gets thousands of complaints a year. Almost all are lodged against a district, with a few against the state. But individuals and organizations are uniformly (or nearly so) the complainants. In structural terms, this would mean that a party outside of the federal funding agreement, which is the basis for Title VI liability, is asking the federal government to bring a district into compliance with Title VI. While students are certainly the beneficiaries of the federal money, the point of OCR's administrative process is not to secure remedies for individual complaints (although they may often get one). The point is to ensure future compliance by the district. This fact often frustrates complainants.
The instant case, in contrast, involves one federal funding recipient--the district--alleging claims against another--the state. This does not change the underlying substantive issue--discriminatory funding--but it does change the politics and resolution of that issue. In effect, the district is what one might call a "super plaintiff" in that it has actual legal standing in the contractual relationship between the federal government and the state and the district (although standing requirements are not predicates to OCR complaints). The district also has enhanced political standing. Unlike the single student who might ask OCR to terminate an entire school district or state's federal funding (if the district or state doesn't comply) simply because that student has been harmed, this complaint involves a district making a claim against its own system. Thus, it potentially could harm its own financial interests. In that respect, it may have more legitimacy and bargaining power in the eyes of OCR. On the other hand, the district is asking OCR to intervene in an internal state relationship, not simply the relationship between the federal government and the state or district, which raise federalism concerns. Fortunately, when discrimination is at issue, those federalism concerns are trumped.