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A Campaign for Equity: Across the State

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Michael Rebell

Michael Rebell and the Campaign for Fiscal Equity are finishing what Brown vs. Board of Education started.

The Man in the Billion-Dollar Suit

Michael Rebell and the Campaign for Fiscal Equity are finishing what Brown v. the Board of Education started. Come to TC and take his class.

Suppose you could take a course with Clarence Darrow and hear firsthand how he fought the Scopes trial? Or with Thurgood Marshall to learn about the strategies in Brown v. the Board of Education?

The handful of TC and Columbia students who took Michael Rebell's Tuesday evening law class last fall did something very much like that. Rebell, an adjunct professor at TC, has led a decade-long lawsuit aimed at bringing New York City billions of dollars in additional school funding. He co-founded the plaintiff organization in the case-the Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE)-and also fashioned its legal strategy, ushering in a new era in school finance suits nationwide. In the 1970s and ?80s, these suits had contended that under-privileged schools and their students were entitled to the same dollar amount of funding as those in wealthier districts. Many courts-including New York State's-emphatically rejected that argument. Rebell, in contrast, decided to base CFE's case on the notion of "adequacy," which holds that the state constitution guarantees all children a "sound, basic education." Though adequacy had been employed in a few other cases, Rebell refined the concept, formed a national network aimed at promoting its use, and has set down his wisdom and experience in two books, Equality and Education and Educational Policy Making and the Courts.

In June 2003, New York State's highest court found for CFE, and this past November, after the state repeatedly failed to increase education funding to the city, a special panel appointed by Justice Leland DeGrasse recommended that the city receive an additional $5.6 billion over four years for school operations and $9.2 billion for facilities.

 "The CFE case doesn't have the spiritual depth that Brown had, but it may ultimately achieve more for children's education," says Thomas Sobol, Christian A. Johnson Professor of Outstanding Leadership Practice at Teachers College. "Because, increasingly, we're asking our schools to take a large and diverse population and bring them all to a high standard of achievement. And it seems to me that you can't get all the kids together, metaphorically, and say, ?We're going to give you guys over here the resources to function in society, and the rest of you, well, good luck, life is hard.'"  

Students at TC have their pick of faculty members who have made major contributions to the CFE case. They can start with Sobol, who, as New York State's Commissioner of Education from 1987 to 1995, quietly gave CFE a major leg up through his approach to writing state standards for student learning and achievement.

"In the early 90s, we were working on a document called ?A New Compact for Learning,' which was among the first to codify achievement standards, including key concepts and competencies kids had to know at different grade levels," Sobol recalls. "I was sitting on my porch one weekend when it occurred to me that you could write those standards in a way to buttress a law suit. Because think of it: You're a plaintiff, and you say you're not getting a sound, basic education. The judge can say, ?What's a sound, basic education? And who are you to tell us?' But if you can show that poorer kids aren't meeting codified targets, then you can say, ?Your Honor, they're getting the short end of the stick-by the standards of the Board of Regents.'"

Yet when CFE filed its case, Sobol-simply by virtue of his position-found himself named as a defendant. So he took the radical step of asking to switch sides in the case. The request was denied, but in the end he served as an amicus witness to CFE.

"I hadn't done any studies, but I did have nearly six decades of experience in schools," Sobol says. That proved useful during a courtroom clash in which the two sides presented conflicting studies on the value of reducing class size. "I said to Justice DeGrasse, ?Look, all I have to go on is all my years in schools. And all I can tell you is that no one ever came to me and complained that classes were too small.'"

Others at TC who have been integral to the CFE case include:

Gary Natriello, Professor of Sociology and Education, and Director of TC's Gottesman Libraries.

Early on, CFE used a report he'd written detailing the costs of equipping schools with the physical resources necessary to enable students to meet new learning standards. Currently, Natriello is creating a digital archive at TC of the entire CFE case, and he has also participated in a CFE-sponsored planning exercise that included most of the major political and education voices in the state.   

"The CFE people understand that in all of these cases, winning in the courts is only the beginning of a multi-stage battle of getting the legislative or executive branch to comply," he says. "In the end, no matter the verdict, you're always going to wind up with an out-of-court settlement."

Luis Huerta, Assistant Professor of Education.

He was a star witness in California's recent school finance suit, and CFE has used many of his ideas in its proposal for accountability-how schools and school systems should be held responsible for achieving results with the money they receive.

"For too long, we've left it to the schools and school system to determine the wisest use of their funds -but there have been too many failures to continue in that mode, and we lack the necessary school-level data to understand why," Huerta says. He points to California's well-intentioned but ultimately ill-fated drive to reduce class size. "The state has allocated billions of dollars to provide the new facilities and additional staff necessary to support the new measures, but can't fully account for the effect that's been realized," he says. Meanwhile, seeking better working conditions, teachers have fled underserved schools that lack resources to meet the soaring costs of reform-and some communities are simply scrapping smaller class sizes entirely.

Henry Levin, William H. Kilpatrick Professor of Economics and Education.

He testified in the CFE case that students need higher-level cognitive and analytic skills to make it in today's society. Without these skills, he said, young people will be consigned to lives of serving fast food, digging ditches, cleaning and other menial jobs.

Jay Heubert, Professor of Education and Law.

An expert on high-stakes testing, he is credited by Rebell with helping CFE think through a number of its strategies and implementation ideas.

Arthur Levine, President.

Throughout the past year, he has co-chaired a special commission of the New York City Council that has held public hearings on how the city should ultimately use the CFE money. The commission has heard testimony from political leaders, academic experts, teachers, parents and children, on class size, teacher quality, pre-K and after-school programs, facilities and accountability.

In April 2005, the commission released a report calling for sweeping changes aimed at placing and retaining high-quality teachers in every New York City classroom. The most highly skilled teachers who chose to work in low-performing schools would receive salary increases that would put them among the most highly paid teachers in the state.  

All of which, of course, begs the critical question: Will New York City ever see any of the money, and if so, when?

"We'll get the money," Rebell says. "It's taking longer than it should, and there's been some incredibly unprecedented defiance by the state's executive branch. But by next year this time, I think we'll have it."

He should know. He wrote the books.

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