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In for the Long Haul: Winning Funding for Public Schools

Winning Funding for Public Schools
The Campaign for Fiscal Equity, the Alliance for Quality Education, and other groups show public support for funding reform. Photo by Carol Bluestein Photography.

New York City has a number of excellent public schools that are models for the country. But too many City kids attend school in crumbling, overcrowded buildings with overburdened teachers, limited technology, and not enough books and supplies. Often the neediest kids receive the least help.

For decades, The Trust has supported efforts to improve the City's schools for all students. In the late 1970s, we helped fund research on how the State's education funding system shortchanged the City and other high-needs districts in New York.  But an unsuccessful lawsuit by a Long Island district challenging the inequitable funding system set a seemingly insurmountable precedent.

In the early 1990s, the City was still receiving 12 percent less aid per pupil than the statewide average, even though we enrolled 70 percent of the State's low-income students, 60 percent of those in remedial programs, 50 percent of kids with severe disabilities, and 80 percent of immigrant students. Robert Jackson, then a community school board president and parent of a public high school student, and Michael Rebell, a lawyer for the District 6 school board in Washington Heights, decided they'd had enough. They founded the Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE), a coalition of New York City education and advocacy groups, to revive efforts to get sufficient money for City schools. Our first grant to CFE supported additional research to determine whether a new legal challenge was possible. In 1993, CFE brought a lawsuit claiming that the system denies City students their right under the State constitution to an adequate education.

Subsequent grants to CFE—more than $3.1 million over 15 years—included support for litigation costs, activities to build city and statewide constituencies for finance reform, and research to develop accountability measures to ensure that education funds are used effectively. The Trust also supported other groups working with CFE to build citizen support for the lawsuit and proposed remedies, and to advocate with elected officials.

A Hard-won Battle

Ultimately, the lawsuit was successful.  In its three rulings over the course of the case, the Court of Appeals established that children in New York have a State constitutional right to "a sound basic education," defined as the "opportunity for a meaningful high school education."  It also found that children in the City were denied that opportunity because the schools receive insufficient funds.  In 2006, in response to the lawsuit and advocacy by CFE’s member organizations, the State Legislature agreed to authorize $11 billion for school construction over five years. 

And, later that year, in its final decision in the case, the Court of Appeals held that a minimum of an additional $2 billion per year after a four-year funding phase-in must be provided for the operating budget for City schools, deferring to the legislature to decide whether more funds were needed.  In 2007, the State Legislature enacted the Education and Budget Reform Act, raising the amount of funding to $3.2 billion in state aid and $2.2 billion in aid New York City, to be phased in over four years, with the funds predominately targeted to educationally needy kids. As a result of advocacy by CFE and other education organizations, the law also introduced a new accountability tool – the Contract for Excellence – that requires these funds to be invested in proven strategies and mandates districts seek out public input in setting budget priorities. 

Unfortunately in FY2010, the phase-in was stretched out to seven years due to the downturn in the economy.  The Trust has continued to support CFE and other education groups to monitor implementation of the law, which will be a challenge in the current economic climate.

For 15 years, The Trust stuck with CFE to get better schools for City kids. From the beginning, although we had confidence in CFE and the cause, we knew there was no way to predict the outcome of the lawsuit. Had we looked for short-term results, or even measured the impact of our grants over a few years, we might have ended our support prematurely. Grantmaking is in part hard-headed judgment, part instinct, and part passion, which sometimes means doing what needs to be done even if progress is slow, and even in the face of possible failure.

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