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COURT RULES NEW YORK CONSTITUTION REQUIRES ONLY A MIDDLE-SCHOOL EDUCATION

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"The skills required to enable a person to obtain employment, vote, and serve on a jury, are imparted between grades eight and nine."

Last week, a New York state appeals court overturned a lower court ruling that said New York had failed to provide its students with a “sound, basic education,” in accordance with its state constitution. In Campaign for Fiscal Equity Inc. v. State of New York, the court ruled that the state constitution only requires the state to provide a middle-school education and to prepare students for nothing more than the lowest-level jobs.

A five-judge panel of the appellate division of the state Supreme Court deferred to a previous decision which held that, under the New York state constitution, education “should consist of the basic literacy, calculating, and verbal skills necessary to enable children to eventually function productively as civic participants capable of voting and serving on a jury.” Using this standard, last week’s decision said that “the skills required to enable a person to obtain employment, vote, and serve on a jury, are imparted between grades eight and nine.”

The court also drew a distinction between the state’s obligation to provide children with the opportunity to obtain a basic education and the student’s responsibility to actually achieve that level, saying that although “not all students actually achieve that level of education [that failure] does not necessarily indicate a failure of the State to meet its constitutional obligations.”

In a dissenting opinion, Justice David B. Saxe found “more than ample support for the central finding that the city’s at-risk students . . . are unable to obtain the education to which they are entitled.” He attributed this deficiency to a lack of funds needed to provide the appropriate programs, personnel and training and concluded with a parting shot directed at the majority opinion: “I also note that if the State’s constitutional mandate under the Education Article is satisfied by providing students with low-level arithmetic and reading skills, then logically, it has no meaningful obligation to provide any high school education at all.”

Last week’s decision overturned a January 2001 decision by the state Supreme Court. In an opinion written by Justice Leland DeGrasse, the court held that the city’s schools were inadequate and seriously underfunded and, consequently, failed to provide the “sound, basic education” afforded by the New York state constitution. Michael Rebell, the executive director and counsel for the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, called the decision a “temporary setback,” but expressed confidence that it would ultimately be overruled. “We are confident . . . that the Court of Appeals will ultimately require the State to implement a fair funding system for our children.”

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