Judge Orders Sharply Higher Spending for New York City Public Schools

Published April 1, 2005

Culminating a 12-year court battle over the funding of New York City’s public schools, New York State Supreme Court Justice Leland DeGrasse issued a final decision on February 15 ordering the state legislature and governor to spend an additional $5.63 billion a year to educate the city’s 1.1 million public school students.

That means an increase of $5,100 per child per year on top of current spending of about $11,500 per pupil. DeGrasse also ordered additional capital spending of $9.2 billion over the next five years, or another $1,700 per pupil per year.

Judge Shortened Deadline

DeGrasse’s ruling, which was not unexpected, affirmed the November 2004 recommendations of a judicial panel he established last summer when state legislators failed to comply with a 2003 court order to reform the state’s school funding system so that it provided all students with the opportunity to receive a “sound basic education.” (See “Big Apple Hits Jackpot in School Finance Case,” School Reform News, February 2005.)

While the 2003 court order gave state lawmakers 13 months to come up with a new school funding system, DeGrasse’s February 15 order gave the legislature just 90 days to implement his remedy. The plaintiff in the case, the Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE), had called for the state to be held in contempt of the court and be assessed a fine of $4.2 million a day, but DeGrasse declined.

“By accepting the panel’s recommendations, the judge has laid out a clear road map for the governor and the legislature to follow,” said CFE Executive Director and Counsel Michael A. Rebell in a statement after the order was issued. “The governor and the legislature must now act promptly to comply.”

Gov. George Pataki’s (R) spokesman, Kevin Quinn, said the governor would continue to work with all parties to reach a consensus because that was the only avenue to achieve “true and timely reform” for the whole state and not just for New York City.

Separation of Powers Cited

In its response to the panel report, the state had argued the separation of powers doctrine precludes the judiciary from forcing the legislature to make specific expenditures on education. The state noted Article VII of the New York State Constitution vests the authority for appropriating state funds in the governor and the legislature.

“While courts, admittedly, have broad equitable powers, there is no precedent in New York for any court directly ordering the expenditure of funds,” argued State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer (D). “For a court to do so would place it well beyond its judicial function and directly into the budget process. … Such an order would be antithetical to the notion of separation of powers, one of the cornerstones of the democratic governments of both our nation and its states.”

Spitzer cited an 1898 Court of Appeals ruling that warned of the dangers of upsetting the balance of power among the three branches of government:

“It is not merely for convenience in the transaction of business that they are kept separate by the Constitution,” the ruling said, “but for the preservation of liberty itself, which is ended by the union of the three functions in one man, or in one body of men. It is a fundamental principle of the organic law that each department should be free from interference, in the discharge of its peculiar duties, by either of the others.”

DeGrasse dismissed the state’s argument, maintaining the recommendations of the panel “do not offend the doctrine of separation of powers.” It is the duty of the judicial branch to “safeguard rights provided by the New York State Constitution, and order redress for violation of them,” he declared.

Quinn said Pataki “continues to believe that we need a statewide solution and that these decisions should be made by elected representatives of the people, not the courts, and therefore an appeal will be filed.”

George Clowes ([email protected]) is associate editor of School Reform News.

For more information …

The Web site of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity contains all of the court documents and rulings regarding the lawsuit. http://www.cfequity.org