Rebell Op-Ed: Slashing the city schools budget is illegal, unfair and unwise
By Michael Rebell
On Tuesday, Gov. Paterson proposed $2.5 billion in spending cuts to next year's state education budget. Of that number, $1.8 billion represents a deferral of increases committed to the state's children by the Legislature as a result of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit that concluded in 2006 - a lawsuit I helped lead. The remaining $700 million represents an actual 3.3% reduction from this year's education spending level.
Times are hard, and New York cannot avoid reckoning with its budget crisis. But the plain facts are that reducing appropriations to New York City's schools below the actual amount spent this year would be unconstitutional. And while much of the scheduled increase could legally be delayed, doing so would be as unwise as failing to address the financial crises on Wall Street or in Detroit.
In 2003, New York's highest court ruled that the state's education funding formula denied city public school children the "sound, basic education" guaranteed them by the state's Constitution. The Court gave the state a period of time to determine "the actual cost" of such an education and to revise the formula to provide that amount to every school in the city. The state stalled past the court deadline, and it took another court order to get the process going. Now that a plan for constitutional compliance is underway and the money is actually flowing, the state cannot legally roll back its progress by reducing the level of resources it has begun providing.
Slowing the rate of new increases does not raise the same constitutional issues, but it does mean that, during their formative years, millions of children would be denied the resources they need to become capable citizens and workers. It also means that what once appeared to be the state's commitment to eliminating achievement gaps will, in hindsight, have become just a fleeting aspiration.
Obviously, the governor - a good man who has fought hard in the past on behalf of education and children - must find ways to overcome an enormous state budget deficit. But there are better solutions than shackling our children's future. One possibility would be to impose an extra tax on the wealthy in order to maintain adequate education funding levels. If Paterson wants to avoid such a tax increase, he should instead urge the governors of the other 15 states who are currently cutting school funding to join him in petitioning the President-elect to throw a rope to the states to help them maintain their commitment to educational excellence and equity. Perhaps as part of the new administration's anticipated stimulus package, we should invest in the human capital we need to maintain the country's prosperity. Safeguards could be put in place to ensure that the money goes immediately and directly to maintain educational services without sloshing around in states' general funds.
I estimate that such a program would cost about $20 billion nationwide for the next year. That is a lot of money, to be sure, but it pales in comparison to the bailout given to Wall Street, and it would arguably be money much better spent. If we can rescue banks and car manufacturers, surely we can afford to do the same for our children.
Rebell is executive director of the Campaign for Educational Equity and was co-counsel for the plaintiffs in the CFE litigation.
This opinion article appeared in the December 19, 2008 issue of the New York Daily News. The original article can be found here.