In a unanimous decision, a New York Appellate Court has found the State violated the rights of students in eight high-needs school districts to the constitutional guarantee of a sound basic education, reversing a trial judge ruling in the case. The Appellate Court rendered the May 27 decision on appeal for the second time after a 2015 trial in Maisto v. New York, known as the “Small Cities” case.
“This ruling sends a clear message that fiscal downturns, economic recessions or even a pandemic do not excuse states from their constitutional obligation to adequately fund public education,” said Greg Little, a lead lawyer in the trial of the Maisto case and ELC’s Chief Trial Counsel. “The bottom line of this decision is states cannot balance their budgets on the backs of their school children.”
The Maisto case was brought by parents of students in eight low-wealth districts with high concentrations of students from low-income households, English Learners (EL) and students with disabilities: Jamestown, Kingston, Mount Vernon, Newburgh, Niagara Falls, Port Jervis, Poughkeepsie and Utica. The plaintiffs contended that, from 2009-2015, the State’s failure to fully fund New York’s Foundation Aid Formula, coupled with draconian funding cuts imposed during and after the 2008 recession, resulted in the loss of $1.1 billion in state aid.
The plaintiffs further claimed that, as a result of the funding cuts, the districts were forced to slash essential education resources, particularly staff, programs and services for “at-risk” students, including social workers, guidance counselors and Academic Intervention Services (AIS). The resulting severe deficits in key inputs led to low academic outputs, such as test scores and graduation rates.
After a two-month trial in 2015, consisting of 5,000 pages of testimony and 30 boxes of exhibits, the trial judge dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims in a sixteen-page opinion that gave short shrift to the meticulously developed evidentiary record. The plaintiffs appealed and in 2017, the Appeals Court unanimously reversed the trial court’s decision, finding that the trial judge erred by failing to analyze the district-specific evidence of inputs, outputs and causation presented by the plaintiffs according to the framework established in the landmark Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) case.
The case was remanded to the trial court with instructions to consider a broad range of inputs necessary for a constitutional education. The decision made clear the proper standard for causation is whether the plaintiffs demonstrated that increased funding can provide the inputs needed to improve student performance.
On remand, the trial court found that the plaintiffs failed to prove a constitutional violation. The trial judge maintained that the services lacking for “at-risk” students, such as social workers, were “aspirational” and not constitutionally required. The judge also declared that these services were aimed at “outside social concerns and problems” and that it was “not the core mission of the educational system to repair” these problems.
The plaintiffs again appealed, and, in a May 27 ruling, the Appellate Court took the unusual step of conducting its own de novo review of all the evidence presented at trial. The Court found that while the districts had adequate services for their general student populations, they lacked critical services, staff and programs for “at-risk” students. Those services included AIS in all core subjects, social workers, pre-kindergarten, psychologists, interventions for English Learners and students with disabilities, and extended learning time opportunities. These deficiencies were often exacerbated by shortages in other key areas, such as excessive class sizes or inadequate facilities.
The Appellate Court flatly rejected the trial court’s conclusion that support services such as AIS, social workers, EL teachers, and psychologists were not core educational services. The Court held that “[a]lthough we agree with Supreme Court that the educational system cannot be charged with resolving all of society’s problems, we believe that the services and programming in question are foundational and that the level provided was insufficient to meet student need.”
On this crucial issue, the Appellate Court found that:
The compelling evidence demonstrated that, in order to place a sound basic education within the reach of such students, they require early interventions, more time on task and other supplemental programming, as well as support from adequate numbers of guidance counselors, social workers or other similar professionals.
For each district, the Appellate Court found that inadequate state funding was a cause of the deficits in inputs and low student outputs, which the State conceded were unacceptable. The Court credited the detailed testimony of district witnesses, as well as plaintiff expert witnesses. The Court further noted that in many instances, the State’s experts conceded that additional funding would enable the districts to provide the resources they lacked.
In a strongly worded conclusion, the Appellate Court held:
Working from the premise articulated in CFE II that all children can succeed when given appropriate instructional, social and health services, we find – based upon the evidence of inadequate inputs, poor outputs and a causal connection to [State] defendant’s school financing system – that plaintiffs have established a constitutional violation with respect to the at-risk student population in each of the subject school districts.
“This ruling affirms and clarifies that a constitutional education for students in districts segregated by race and poverty includes crucial supplemental programs and services to meet their academic, social and health needs,” said Wendy Lecker, ELC Senior Attorney. “Nurses, social workers, guidance counselors and other support staff in schools are not ancillary but central to effectuating students’ education rights.”
On a remedy for the constitutional violation, the Appellate Court emphasized that it has no authority to direct the nature of the remedy or the manner in which it is implemented, and that it is up to the State to craft an appropriate response, subject to judicial review. The Court remitted the case to the trial court for further proceedings on remedy.
The latest Maisto decision reaffirms the core constitutional principle that, to ensure every child a sound basic education, the State must provide adequate funding so schools can not only provide rigorous academic instruction, but also meet the social and health needs of students. The decision is a powerful recognition that support services are essential to a school system’s core function. This ruling will be particularly critical as New York schools strive to meet the social, emotional and academic needs of students still reeling from the COVID-19 crisis.
In the first appeal, the Maisto plaintiffs were represented by the Biggerstaff law firm; DeGraff, Foy & Kunz, LLP; White & Case LLP; and New York State United Teachers. Plaintiffs were represented in the second appeal by DeGraff, Foy & Kunz, LLP.
Greg Little, then a partner at White & Case and currently Chief Trial Counsel at Education Law Center, along with William Reynolds, partner at Nixon Peabody, were lead counsel at trial, with pro bono support from both law firms. The Biggerstaff law firm, New York State United Teachers, and Wendy Lecker, ELC Senior Attorney, also served on the trial team.
More information about the Maisto
case is available here.
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