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Highest New York Court Requires “Meaningful High School Education”: Court Declares School Funding System Unconstitutional

"Students require more than an eighth-grade education to function productively as citizens,"

Recently the New York Court of Appeals, the State’s highest court, ruled that a “high school level education is now all but indispensable” to prepare students to compete for jobs that enable them to support themselves. In Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. State of New York, the court rejected a lower court’s argument that the New York Constitution only requires the state to provide a middle-school education and to prepare students for nothing more than the lowest-level jobs.

In writing the majority decision, Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye wrote that the lower court incorrectly determined that a “sound basic education” as required by the New York Constitution could be imparted by the time students finish the eighth- or ninth-grade. “Students require more than an eighth-grade education to function productively as citizens,” she wrote. Continuing a step farther, Kaye declared that a sound basic education is not possible without a “meaningful high school education.”

Chief Judge Kaye went on to write that most entry-level jobs require many more skills than those that can be provided in high school. “The record showed that employers who offer entry-level jobs that do not require college increasingly expect applicants to have had instruction that imparts these abilities, if not a specific credential.”

In the 4-1 decision, the court ordered the State of New York to determine what it would cost to offer each of New York City’s 1.1 million students a sound basic education, as guaranteed by its constitution, and to provide the schools the resources necessary to do so. It gave a tight deadline of July 30, 2004, for the new system to be in place.

Michael A. Rebell, the executive director at the Campaign for Fiscal Equity and co-counsel in the case praised the court’s decision: “It became a racial and socioeconomic issue. And the courts rejected the idea that certain kids, because of their socioeconomic backgrounds, are uneducable. That’s a wonderful message. It’s the first court in the country that has said so, so clearly, and the first court that has been fully clear on the remedy to bring that about.”

The first order of business will be to determine how much providing a sound basic education will cost the state. A study to make that determination is already underway under the direction of Rebell at the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, although New York Gov. George E. Pataki can choose to commission another study. While Rebell’s study is not expected before winter, an earlier study issued last year by New York City’s Independent Budget Office indicated that the state might have to provide an additional $3.3 billion in education funding in order for the city’s funding to be on par with the rest of the state’s school districts.

Other Judges Weigh In on Importance of a High School Education

In his concurring opinion on the Campaign for Fiscal Equity decision, Judge George Bundy Smith continued to stress the importance of a high school education:

The record establishes what would strike many as an obvious truth: A high school education is today as indispensable as a primary education was in 1894. Children in the 21st century need the opportunity for more than a ninth grade education to be productive citizens. Back in the 19th century, a high school education was not needed to obtain a good job. Now, a high school education is a pre-requisite to most good jobs.

Those who lack a high school education and have obtained good jobs have done so in spite of, not because of, the lack of a high school education. While it may be true that there will always be menial low-skills jobs, and thus a need for people to fill them, it should not be the purpose of the public schools to prepare students for those jobs, which are limited in number and dwindling.


Although she offered the only dissenting opinion on the court’s decision to require a new school financing system, Judge Susan P. Read agreed with the majority that, “The children who attend New York City’s public schools require more than an eighth-grade education to meet the demands of today’s world.”

Read the complete court decision at:

Learn more about the Campaign for Fiscal Equity at:



Equity, High School Reform

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