June 30, 2003
Public Policy Institute: After CFE ruling, school spending debate hinges on judge
The state Court of Appeals ruling that New York State must spend more on New York City schools to make sure that schoolchildren there receive an adequate education will create "enormous political problems" next year and will give unusual powers to a single judge, the head of The Public Policy Institute, the research affiliate of The Business Council, said today.
"It's going to be a big mess," David F. Shaffer, president of The Institute, said in an interview with capitolwire.com, an on-line news and information service.
In a case brought by an advocacy group called the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, the state's highest court ruled June 26 that state Supreme Court Judge Leland DeGrasse can decide if the state Legislature's remedy works, and what to do if it doesn't, Shaffer said.
"That comes awfully close to putting one lonely Manhattan Supreme Court Justice in charge of the school system, over . . . the board of education, the community, the parents, the governor, the Legislature," Shaffer noted.
"Anything he does can be appealed, but. . . . you have city policy determined not by the mayor but a judge and that has been a real administrative nightmare. It's potentially a real danger."
He added: "The people should be able to vote for or against the person who is taking your tax money and, obviously, you cannot do that with a judge." He added that it's unlikely the judge will be able to fix the problem, and that nothing in the court's ruling limits his options in fashioning a remedy.
Shaffer disputed the notion that the decision automatically means the state must spend much more money on education. He noted that the case was based on spending patterns from 1997, and that the state had made enormous increases in aid to schools since then. "So it's conceivable that this will not result in an enormous infusion of new money into the system," he said.
But he predicted that the state Legislature would raise taxes rather than take aid away from other districts, if necessary to increase school spending in New York City.
Shaffer noted that the case has nothing to do with equity — because the state Court of Appeals, in a 1995 decision on the same case, ruled explicitly that there is a constitutional right to a sound education, but not to equity in funding.
This funding increase "will make little difference to the educational outcome in the city," he predicted.
"Parochial schools in the city, with much the same student body and half as much money, frequently do a better job," Shaffer said. "The real issue is, when we put more money in, what performance do we have to show for it?"
Shaffer has argued that Judge DeGrasse's remedy must consider how to make schools accountable for performance.
"What if the school-spending lobby is wrong? What if more money isn't all it takes to get good performance out of the schools?", Shaffer wrote in a June 27 op-ed in the New York Post the day after the CFE ruling. "The high court's answer is that there must be 'a system of accountability to measure whether the reforms actually provide the opportunity for a sound basic education'again, supervised by DeGrasse. He's certainly got his work cut out for him."