Courting Improvements in Education
by Brian D. Backstrom, Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, August 10, 2012
In late June, state courts cleared the way for 13 small city school districts to sue for more education funding. These districts claim that a lack of public revenue is preventing them from fulfilling their state constitutional mandate to provide a “sound, basic education.”
Avoiding the political process by turning to the courts to enact public policies is intriguing. After more than a decade of litigation, New York’s highest court ruled in 2006 that the state failed to provide sufficient financial resources to New York City schools, and claimed (but without any real proof) that this lack of spending was a cause of the schools’ widespread academic failure. In response, the state Legislature authorized billions of dollars for high-need urban schools, expanding the court’s remedy for New York City by providing massive aid increases to cities throughout the state.
Although state aid increases did not hit the astronomical spending targets proposed by the court, education spending in New York City still increased by nearly 30 percent since the ruling and in other large urban cities similarly. The court-ordered spending, however, hasn’t resulted in the desired outcome: better urban public education. Poor test results and low graduation rates continue to characterize city school districts across the state.
In the meantime, other education reforms are proving worthy. For example, public charter schools, located almost solely in urban cores and thriving on only a portion of the per-pupil aid provided to district schools, are among examples that better academic results are tied to how education dollars are spent, not how much is spent.
Whether using court system to make public policy is wise, the litigation has done some good: the devastatingly low performance of New York’s urban schools has been highlighted; judicial confirmation that students trapped in these failing schools are being denied their constitutional right to a “sound, basic education” is valuable; and if the state’s obstinate political structure prevents needed action, precedence exists for court-ordered public policy solutions.
A better legal option exists than yet another spend-more-now, worry-about-results-later case: disenfranchised students should sue to force the state to offer school-choice vouchers. Voucher programs in other states have been successful at raising individual student achievement and improving district school performance, and could be implemented to provide immediate relief for students trapped in failing schools.
The demographics and chronic failure of Rochester’s city schools offers a prime venue for such a program and could present a strong legal case. If New Yorkers are going to the court system to seek public policy reforms that fix the crisis in public education, let’s at least sue for something that works.
Brian D. Backstrom, a graduate of the University of Rochester, is President of the Foundation for Education Reform & Accountability, and Albany-area public policy research organization that focuses on programs that stimulate innovation, instill accountability and support choice in education.
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