In a surprising decision issued last week, Acting Supreme Court Justice Kimberly O’Connor dismissed the claims of schoolchildren from eight small city school districts in upstate New York who alleged that they were being denied their constitutionally-mandated opportunity for a sound basic education because of inadequate state funding. Maisto v. State of New York. The decision was unexpected because the judge ignored all of the evidence of inadequate educational inputs and below par educational outcomes that had been presented by the plaintiffs during the months-long trial; instead, she ruled as a matter of law that the state need not provide the level of aid that its own foundation aid formula had determined to be necessary to provide students the opportunity for a sound basic education.
The judge wrote that the fundamental question is:
whether the State can alter or adjust the education reform plan that was put into place by changing the levels of funding for each school district based upon the fluctuation of the State’s fiscal condition, the needs of the school districts, the level of local contribution and federal funding for the school districts, and other competing issues that are considered in the development of the New York State budget, and still deliver on its obligation to ensure that school children are provided the opportunity for a sound basic education. The answer to that question is yes.
The Court agreed that “[t]he performance of many of the students is not acceptable, and the educators, administrators, State actors and other employees of the school districts have a responsibility ….[to]improve the results for their students. But, she said “the action that is required is not in the form of a specific dollar amount, but is instead a blend of funding, oversight, and proper allocation of resources by the districts.”
In other words, the Court appears to be saying that the state may reduce the amount of funding it had originally found to be necessary to provide all students the opportunity for a sound basic education if it adopts accountability and monitoring procedures that can mandate or guide school districts to meet student needs through better, more cost efficient programs. The judge did not find or indicate that the state had even offered evidence that it had, in fact, adopted any such accountability procedures or that constitutionally-appropriate services were being provided in these districts at a lower cost.
Plaintiffs have stated that they will appeal this decision.