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Campaign for Fiscal Equity, Inc. v. State, 86 N.Y.2d 307 (June 13, 1995).





The Campaign for Fiscal Equity, a not-for-profit corporation of concerned citizens, 14 of New York's 32 school districts, and several students and their parents brought an action challenging the constitutionality of the state's public school financing. Three defendants (the State of New York, the Senate Majority Leader, and the Assembly Minority Leader) brought a motion to dismiss on the grounds that some of the plaintiffs could not bring this type of action and that the complaint failed to state a cause of action. The supreme court granted defendant's motion to dismiss in relation to the plaintiff school districts. The court also dismissed the remaining plaintiffs' equal protection and Title VI claims, but ruled that these remaining plaintiffs had a valid cause of action under the Education Article and Title VI's implementing regulations. The Appellate Division modified the decision and granted the defendant's motion to dismiss all claims. According to the Appellate Division, the plaintiffs' claims had been fully tried and determined by the court in Levittown, and the state had not violated Title VI implementing regulations. The Court of Appeals reversed and held that the non-school district plaintiffs had a valid cause of action under the Education Article and under the implementing regulations of Title VI.



Whether a challenge to the New York State's public school financing system gives rise to a cause of action under (1) the Education Article of the State Constitution, (2) the equal protection clauses of the State and Federal Constitutions, or (3) Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and its implementing regulations?


A split court concluded that non-school board plaintiffs plead a sustainable claim under the Education Article of the State Constitution, and a unanimous court found a valid claim under Title VI's implementing regulations. All other complaints were dismissed. 





1. New York Education Article
A. Majority

The court first addressed whether the plaintiffs plead a viable cause of action under the Education Article of the New York State Constitution. The court reinstated a cause of action under the Educational Article, holding that the plaintiff's theory was different from that rejected in Board of Educ. Levittown Union Free Sch. Dist. v. Nyquist, 57 N.Y.2d 27 (N.Y. 1982). The Court interpreted Levittown as holding that the Education Article established a constitutional floor of minimally acceptable educational standards, but did not ensure that all educational offerings would be equal. The non-school board plaintiffs in the instant case did not claim that the educational offerings were not equal, but rather, that they fell below the Constitution's minimum standards. Based upon the procedural posture of the case, the Court did not address whether the educational offerings met the minimum standards; however, it set forth guidelines for the trial court to consider, such as whether the educational offerings provide the opportunity to acquire basic literacy skills necessary to enable the students to vote and serve as jurors.

B. Levine, J., concurring

Judge Levine concurred separately, agreeing with the majority's holding concerning a cause of action under the Education Article, but disagreeing with the majority's interpretation of the scope of the Education Article. Based on the history of Levittown and the Education Article, Judge Levine concluded that the majority had departed from the reasoning in Levittown by articulating a standard to determine whether educational offerings meet the state constitution's minimum requirements that was objectively unverifiable and less precise.

C. Simons, J., dissenting in part

Judge Simons disagreed with the majority's interpretation of the Education Article as having a qualitative component. According to Judge Simons, the State's duty is fulfilled if it creates and supports a structure for a statewide system of schools in which children can receive an education. The state constitution does not guarantee minimum educational standards that are to be judicially determined, but rather, leaves it to the other branches of government to set forth any minimum standards. Ultimately, a cause of action under the Education Article only arises when state aid to education can be shown to be grossly inadequate.

2. Equal Protection Claims
In considering plaintiffs' equal protection claim under the state and federal constitutions, the Court of Appeals concluded that the disparities in educational funding were rationally related to the legitimate state interest of preservation and promotion of local control of education. The court reached this result in the face of a claim based on the Supreme Court's decision in Plyler v. Doe, 457 U.S. 202, reh'g denied, 458 U.S. 1131 (1982), that intermediate level scrutiny should apply. The Court of Appeals noted that the Supreme Court had limited Plyler's holding in Kadrmas v. Dickinson Pub. Schs. , 487 U.S. 450 (1988), to the unique circumstances of that case, i.e., that the children of illegal aliens were excluded entirely from Texas' educational system. The Court of Appeals reaffirmed its conclusion in Levittown, 57 N.Y.2d at 27, that education is not a fundamental right under the United States Constitution, as announced in San Antonio Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 1 (1973), nor under New York's constitution. Thus, the Court of Appeals decision on plaintiff's equal protection claim represents conformance to settled federal and state constitutional precedent.
3. Title VI Claim
A. Title VI

The plaintiffs in this action claimed that the state public education system violated Title VI and Title VI's implementing regulations. The court noted that Title VI, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000d-2000d(6) prohibits discrimination on the basis of race or national origin in programs receiving federal financial assistance.

The standard that the New York Court of Appeals set out for plaintiffs to demonstrate a violation of Title VI is taken from the Supreme Court's ruling in Guardians Assoc. v. Civil Serv. Comm'n of City of New York, 463 U.S. 582 (1983). Under Guardians, to succeed on a Title VI claim, plaintiffs must show intentional discrimination. Although the Supreme Court ruled more specifically in Guardians, that discriminatory intent is required only "for private remedies for Title VI violations," id. at 584, the complaint in this case did not demonstrate intentional discrimination, and as a result the Court dismissed plaintiff's Title VI claim.

B. Title VI's Implementing Regulations

The appellate court cited to 34 CFR § 100.3[b][i][2], Title VI's implementing regulations, which provide that recipients of federal funding may not utilize criteria or methods of administration which subject individuals to discrimination. In addition, the court cited to Alexander v. Choate, 469 U.S. 287, 293-94 (1985), for the disparate impact standard. The court noted that "Federal courts have consistently held that the evidentiary standards developed under Title VII govern Title VI cases as well."

The evidentiary standard places the initial burden on the plaintiff to "show by a preponderance of the evidence that a facially neutral practice has a racially disproportionate effect, whereupon the burden shifts to the defendant to prove a substantial legitimate justification for its practice. The plaintiff then may ultimately prevail by proffering an equally effective alternative practice which results in less racial disproportionality or proof that the legitimate practices are a pretext for discrimination." Georgia State Conference of Branches of NAACP v. Georgia, 775 F.2d 1403, 1417 (11th Cir. 1985).

Applying these standards, the court concluded that plaintiffs stated a cause of action under Title VI's implementing regulations. "Plaintiffs support their allegations statistically, pointing to the disparity between the total and per capita education aid distributed to the city's predominantly minority student population as opposed to the amount distributed to the State's non-minority students." Because the defendants did not state a justification for the existing practice, the court held that the action under Title VI's implementing regulations should be reinstated. Judges Levine, concurring, and Simons and Smith, dissenting, join the majority with respect to the Title VI claim.

4. Survey of Law in Other Jurisdictions
Since 1980, the highest courts in over half the states have ruled on direct challenges to the financing schemes of their state's public school systems (see, for example, McDuffy v. Secretary of Executive Office of Educ., 615 N.E.2d 516 (Mass.1993); Abbott v. Burke, 575 A.2d 359 (N.J. 1990); Serrano v. Priest, 226 Cal.Rptr. 584 (Cal. Ct. App. 1986)). The clear majority of the cases have seen the approval of the state's financing system under rational basis scrutiny, while only a handful of courts have ruled that education is a fundamental right requiring heightened judicial scrutiny. Moreover, no court has prohibited a local governmental body from acting to raise its schools above some minimum level of adequate educational opportunity. Thus, as long as the state has provided some constitutionally required floor, counties, cities, and school districts are free to add their resources to provide whatever educational opportunities they deem necessary.

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