The Fate of New York Public Education Is a Matter of Interpretation: A Story of Competing Methods of Constitutional Interpretation, the Nature of Law, and a Functional Approach to the New York Education Article

Article excerpt

The virtues of one generation are not sufficient for the next, any more than the accumulations of knowledge possessed by one age are adequate to the needs of another. (1)

I believe that education is the fundamental method of social progress and reform. I believe that all reforms which rest simply upon the enactment of law, or the threatening of certain penalties, or upon changes in mechanical or outward arrangements, are transitory and futile. (2)

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The importance of education in American society and the government's responsibility to provide every child with the opportunity to receive an education is one of the centerpieces of the Brown v. Board of Education legacy. (3) Three generations after Brown, communities no longer struggle over the specific issue of busing, (4) but rather on deficient resources and ineffective educational systems that perpetuate racial and socioeconomic isolation and a substandard quality of education. (5) The underlying social and political promises of Brown raise the question as to what extent government must act to guarantee children a quality education. Without an explicit mandate in the Federal Constitution, the majority of educational responsibility falls to the states. (6)

In 1894, New York State constitutionalized education under Article XI of the New York State Constitution, known as the Education Article, which states: "The legislature shall provide for the maintenance and support of a system of free common schools, wherein all the children of this state may be educated." (7) Due to the Education Article's imprecise and general language, the New York State judiciary has struggled to interpret the Article and identify the extent of the state's role in public education under the constitutional mandate. (8) The New York Court of Appeals has employed an originalist method of interpretation in Education Article disputes, (9) finding that plaintiffs maintain a cause of action only in certain extreme circumstances. (10)

Beginning in the 1970s, attempts by educational advocates to bring suits under the Education Article continually failed. (11) Finally, in 2003, advocates achieved a monumental victory in Campaign for Fiscal Equity, Inc. v. State (CFE II), ending a thirty year journey to uncover the substantive rights embedded in the Article. (12) In CFE II, the New York Court of Appeals held that the state finance system failed to provide New York City public schools with the necessary resources to obtain a sound basic education in violation of the Education Article. (13) While the New York State legislature and governor failed to meet the court's deadline to implement the necessary measures to cure the system's infirmities, and appealed many recommended reforms, on November 20, 2006, the Court of Appeals uttered its final word in the CFE case and held that the State must increase funding of New York City public schools, setting the floor at a minimum of $1.93 billion, despite education advocates' request for an increase of at least $4.7 billion. (14) This lengthy litigation took the New York courts to the brink of a constitutional crisis, confronting the very spirit of separation of power principles. (15)

However, despite the legal victory in the CFE case, the Court of Appeals' narrow interpretation of the Article has left it without a framework to adapt to the rising standard of education and the changing social milieu, and, thus, to meet the needs of poorly performing students in the state. (16) The court is unwilling to expand the parameters of the article's reach. The recent cases, Paynter ex rel. Stone v. State and New York Civil Liberties Union v. State (NYCLU), which this Article considers, presented unique claims questioning whether state policies that potentially promote socioeconomic isolation and state nonfeasance are actionable under the Education Article. The Court of Appeals decidedly dismissed both cases for failure to state a claim, leaving a portion of the state student population with minimal recourse. …