NY Appellate Court Says Lawsuit Contending Segregation Deprives Students of a Constitutionally Sound Basic Education Can Go Forward

For the first time, a New York court has ruled that school segregation can be the basis for a violation of a “sound basic education” under the Education Article of the New York Constitution. On May 2, in a unanimous decision, the New York Appellate Division, First Department, decided that a challenge to segregation in New York City high schools can proceed to trial.

The plaintiffs in the case, IntegrateNYC v. State, are the youth-led organization IntegrateNYC, two parent organizations, and current and former New York City public school students. The lawsuit is against the State of New York, the Governor, the New York State Board of Regents, the New York State Education Department, and the New York State Commissioner of Education, along with the New York City Mayor, the New York City Department of Education, and its Chancellor.

The plaintiffs charge that both state and city policies result in school segregation in city high schools and deprive Black and Latinx students of their rights to a sound basic education and equal protection under New York’s Constitution. They also contend that this subjects them to discriminatory practices under New York’s Human Rights Law. 

At issue are standardized tests for placement in particular schools and in gifted and talented programs, which the plaintiffs say create a “racialized pipeline” that consigns Black and Latinx students to unscreened schools, “which frequently are housed in dilapidated and unsanitary buildings, where students are taught by the least experienced teachers and deprived of adequate educational resources.”

In addition, the plaintiffs charge that city schools lack teacher diversity, a culturally responsive curriculum and training in anti-racism, and that the schools engage in disproportionate discipline and create a hostile environment for Black and Latinx students. The complaint asks the court to declare these practices unconstitutional and to issue an injunction barring screening tests, among other relief.

The defendants moved to dismiss the case, arguing that the request for injunctive relief would improperly place a court in the position of an “education czar.” The lower court granted the motion, ruling that because the plaintiffs sought this injunction, the entire case was non-justiciable, or not subject to being decided by a court.  

The plaintiffs appealed. The defendants argued not only that the case was non-justiciable, but also that the plaintiffs failed to state a claim. The defendants argued, among other things, that only cases challenging state funding could be brought under the Education Article of the New York Constitution.

The Appellate Court disagreed with both the trial court and the defendants. The court reversed the ruling of non-justiciability, noting that the lower court improperly ignored the other, justiciable relief requested by the plaintiffs.

Importantly, the Appellate Court ruled that the plaintiffs could bring their segregation claim as an adequacy case under the Education Article. The Court disputed the defendants’ argument that adequacy cases could only challenge state funding. The Court observed that New York’s landmark adequacy decision, Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. State (CFE), concluded that if the plaintiffs establish that state action or inaction is a cause for district-wide inadequate educational inputs leading to inadequate student outcomes, then they will have proved that students are being deprived of a constitutionally sound basic education. 

The Court noted that the plaintiffs contend that segregation relegates Black and Latinx students to schools with inadequate resources, such as large class sizes, substandard facilities, and an insufficient curriculum. The plaintiffs also allege that a sound basic education requires inputs that ameliorate the effects of racism and poverty—inputs such as curricular change and increased recruitment and retention of teachers of color. 

The Court concluded that, while the claim may be novel, it fits within the CFE framework of an adequacy case. The Court noted that the defendants themselves have acknowledged the importance of diversity and inclusion in city schools. 

The Court also ruled that the plaintiffs sufficiently alleged the requisite intent to claim the defendants are violating the equal protection of Black and Latinx students by imposing screening tests and allowed the New York Human Rights claim to proceed against the city based on the allegation that “but for the discriminatory admissions testing, Black and Latinx students would not have been excluded from the City’s best educational programs.”

“We applaud the IntegrateNYC plaintiffs and the New York Appellate Division’s ruling that segregated schools can deprive students of a sound basic education,” said Robert Kim, Education Law Center Executive Director. “We know that school integration is essential for all students to develop into tolerant, responsible and engaged citizens in our democracy.”

In 2013, ELC represented parents and students in a complaint to the U.S. Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights challenging school segregation in New York City high schools.  ELC is also currently co-counsel in Cruz-Guzman v. State, a school segregation case in Minnesota brought under that state’s education clause, and in LAN v.State of New Jersey, a school desegregation case.

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