Tuesday, October 31, 2017

New York Appellate Court Says Evidence of Education Deprivations Is There; Trial Court Just Needs to Examine It

A New York appellate court in Maisto v. State has reversed the lower court decision in the "Small Cities" school funding litigation.  Litigants had put on extensive evidence of various deprivations in education resources and their connection to student outcomes.  In 2016, however, the trial court dismissed the case with rather summary logic.  The trial court reasoned that because current funding levels exceeded those previously proposed and sanctioned by the courts in 2006, there was no constitutional violation.  As the new appellate decision emphasizes, that logic is extremely misguided.  The real question is whether students in the plaintiff districts are receiving a sound basic education, which requires an assessment of inputs and outputs, which the trial court did not do.

This distinction between the validity of the old remedy and the current provision of a sound basic education is key and confirms a curious issue I raise in my casebook, Education Law: Equality, Fairness, and Reform.  In the 2006 Campaign for Fiscal Equity decision, New York's highest court had evaluated the differing assessments of the cost of providing an adequate education in New York.  A commission had proposed one number, the governor another, and the legislature another.  The court ultimately deferred to the state's proposed number, even though it was lower than others, concluding that the state's number was not unreasonable.  Readers are often struck by the fact that after all the prior tough decisions in CFE, the court ends the case on a reasonableness standard. In the notes following the case, I try to lead readers to the logic of the reasonableness standard.  I ask: "Do the plaintiffs have the right to return to the court if these estimates later prove to be insufficient, or is it enough that the state acted in good faith or within reason?"  The logical answer has to be the later.

The reasonable approach in CFE is akin to the approach of school desegregation: the state gets the first shot at a remedy and is permitted to move forward with reasonable remedies, even if the court of experts might prefer others.  But this has no bearing at all on plaintiffs ability to bring future cases.  Moreover, if those so called "reasonable" remedies do not work, plaintiffs have the right to return to court and establish that fact. 

In desegregation, failed prior remedies also provide a basis for less deference toward state remedies in future remedies.  In fact, the state's past "good faith" compliance with desegregation is an explicit factor in court's authority to find new violations and enjoin them.  The new curious question will be the extent to which New York courts should afford less deference to the state's estimates of an adequate education.

For now, it is worth reviewing what the current court held.  It provided a nice overview of the relevant precedent and standards and clear directions to the trial court moving forward:

The Education Article declares that “[t]he [L]egislature shall provide for the maintenance and support of a system of free common schools, wherein all the children of this state may be educated” (N.Y. Const, art XI, § 1). To that end, the Court of Appeals has held that the Education Article “ ‘requires [defendant] to offer all children the opportunity of a sound basic education. Such an education should consist of the basic literacy, calculating, and verbal skills necessary to enable children to eventually function productively as civic participants capable of voting and serving on a jury’. The sound basic education guaranteed by the [NY] Constitution requires [defendant] to provide students with the ‘opportunity for a meaningful high school education, one which prepares them to function productively as civic participants' and ‘compete for jobs that enable them to support themselves'.

To establish a violation of the Education Article, a plaintiff must “establish a causal link between the present funding system and any proven failure to provide a sound basic education to [the affected] school children”. This burden may be met by proof regarding the “ ‘inputs' children receive—teaching, facilities and instrumentalities of learning—and their resulting ‘outputs,’ such as test results and graduation and dropout rates”, and, where inputs and outputs are both deficient, a causal link between the two, which may be established by showing that increased funding would provide better teachers, facilities and instrumentalities of learning that improve student performance. With respect to causation, the Court of Appeals specifically rejected the argument that poor socioeconomic conditions excuse poor outputs or results.

. . . .

In response to the [Campaign for Fiscal Equity] cases, Foundation Aid was enacted to increase school aid funding on a statewide basis by approximately $5 .5 billion annually when fully implemented over a four-year period. Foundation Aid was distributed as originally planned in the 2007–2008 and 2008–2009 budget years; however, aid to education was reduced in the 2009–2010 budget in response to the “largest budget gap ever faced by the State,” which was caused by the global financial crisis. Specifically, Foundation Aid was frozen at then-existing levels and the phase-in period was extended from four years to seven years. In addition, the 2010–2011 state budget introduced a “[g]ap [e]limination [a]djustment” (hereinafter GEA), which reduced formula-based school aid by $1.4 billion in that budget year. The GEA was continued in the 2011–2012 through 2015–2016 budgets, but was not continued in the 2016–2017 or 2017–2018 budgets.

Although a claim based solely upon the allegation that Foundation Aid was reduced is insufficient to state a cause of action for violation of the Education Article, plaintiffs did more than simply put forth that conclusory assertion. Plaintiffs' causes of action—grounded in the assertion that the actual funding levels provided following the CFE cases were insufficient to provide the affected students with a sound basic education—were based on detailed, district-specific allegations of insufficient inputs, deficient outputs and causation. More to the point, plaintiffs' proof at trial, which Supreme Court acknowledged established a prima facie case that defendant failed to fulfill its constitutional obligation, was more than sufficient to require analysis under the CFE II framework on a district-by-district basis. Indeed, by noting that changes in educational funding provided by defendant must still “deliver on its obligation to ensure that schoolchildren are provided the opportunity for a sound basic education”, the court acknowledged that any reductions in funding must pass constitutional muster, which is an inquiry that can be answered only through CFE II analysis.

The next key paragraph in the decision provided:

Thus, Supreme Court erred by proceeding directly to the “remedy” stage set forth in CFE III and affording deference to the Legislature without first applying the framework established in CFE II to determine whether plaintiffs had established a constitutional violation. No deference is due the Legislature when applying the CFE II factors to determine whether there is a violation in the first instance.

On that basis, the Court of Appeals remanding the case to the trial court and was clear that the plaintiffs had already presented extensive evidence on the relevant factual issues to be addressed.  Thus, the task is merely for the trial court to apply the law.  The Court of Appeals closed with a final directive:

For any district where the court finds that inputs were insufficient, it must determine—on a district-by-district basis—whether plaintiffs have established causation by showing that increased funding can provide inputs that yield better student performance.


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