On September 19, 2016, an Albany, New York trial court in Maisto v. New York rejected plaintiffs’ claims that the state was constitutionally underfunding eight small-city school districts. Stinson Leonard Street attorneys were co-counsel with attorneys from the New York Attorney General’s office in the trial that led to this favorable result. The decision is notable not only for its reasoning, but because it came less than two weeks after a Connecticut trial court ordered a major overhaul of that state’s education policies based on similar claims.
Previous Education Funding Litigation
In 1995, the Court of Appeals of New York (the state’s highest court) held in Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. New York (CFE I), that Article XI, Section 1 of the New York State Constitution requires the state to offer all children the opportunity for a sound, basic education, including minimally adequate facilities, instrumentalities of learning, and teaching. The court examined the plaintiffs’ complaint in the case—which had been dismissed at the outset by the trial court—and determined that plaintiffs had stated a claim for constitutional underfunding of their schools.
Eight years later, after a trial in the lower court, the case returned to the Court of Appeals. In its decision (CFE II), the court held that the state was constitutionally underfunding the New York City schools. According to the court, the quality of New York City teachers was inadequate, class sizes were too large, students were denied appropriate instrumentalities of learning, and the rate of school completion was below state and national averages. As a remedy, the court ordered the state to determine the cost of providing a sound, basic education in New York City and to enact appropriate reforms to implement a constitutional funding system.
In response to CFE II, the state conducted detailed analyses of educational funding requirements. Based on these analyses, then-Gov. George Pataki proposed a State Education Reform Plan in which he concluded that a statewide increase in school funding of $2.5 billion (to be phased in over five years), with $1.9 billion going to New York City schools, was sufficient to provide a sound, basic education to all students. Although the State Education Reform Plan was not passed by the New York legislature, in 2006 the Court of Appeals examined the Plan in CFE III and concluded that the method used to calculate the $2.5 billion figure was not unreasonable, and thus passed constitutional muster.
In 2007, New York’s legislature instituted a new education funding formula called "Foundation Aid." Under the new law, statewide education funding was to increase by $5.5 billion over four years. But beginning in 2009, due to declining state revenues caused by the Great Recession, the legislature reworked the law and funded New York schools at levels below those set by the 2007 Foundation Aid formula.
Maisto v. New York Litigation
The Plaintiffs in Maisto—student representatives of eight small-city school districts—filed suit against the state claiming that the reduction in funding from the 2007 Foundation Aid level deprived them of the opportunity for a sound, basic education required by the New York constitution. According to the plaintiffs, the 2007 funding level set a constitutional floor below which the state could not deviate. After a trial that lasted several months, the court found the plaintiffs’ claims lacking.
The court relied heavily on the Court of Appeals opinion in CFE III. According to the court, the Foundation Aid formula that the state was currently using and the Education Reform Plan that was held constitutional by the Court of Appeals in CFE III had very similar elements, and because the Education Reform Plan provided substantially lower levels of funding than the 2007 Foundation Aid formula, the 2007 statute could not be the constitutional funding floor, as the plaintiffs had asserted.
The court noted that the performance of many students in the small-city school districts was not acceptable, and that the state, school districts, and educational professionals all have a duty to attempt to improve results for those students. The court noted, however, the many efforts the state had underway to improve student performance, and refused to use the New York Constitution as a basis for second-guessing those efforts.
The contrast between the New York court’s opinion and the opinion of the Connecticut court less than two weeks earlier is striking. While both courts found that the respective states were not constitutionally underfunding the schools, the Connecticut court went on to order a major overhaul of the state’s educational policies. A summary of the Connecticut court’s opinion can be found here. The New York court, on the other hand, took heed of prior appellate court opinions warning that the judiciary should not "intrude upon the policy-making and discretionary decisions that are reserved to the legislative and executive branches."