The present amalgam of statutory prescriptions for State aid to local school districts for the maintenance and support of public elementary and secondary education does not violate the equal protection clause of either the Federal or the State Constitution nor is it unconstitutional under the education article of our State Constitution.
This declaratory judgment action challenging the State's provisions for financing our public schools is prosecuted by two groups, representing different constituencies and mounting attacks based on different predicates. The original plaintiffs by which the action was instituted in 1974 are the boards of education of 27 school districts located at various sites in the State and 12 students of public schools located in some of those districts. The intervenors, whose participation in the action was agreed to by the original parties, are the boards of education, officials, resident taxpayers, and students of the Cities of New York, Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse, together with a federation of parent and parent-teacher associations in the City of New York. Defendants are the Commissioner of Education, the University of the State of New York, the State Comptroller and the Commissioner of Taxation and Finance of the State of New York.
It is the contention of the original plaintiffs (who are "property-poor" school districts) that the system for financing public schools presently in effect in this State (as principally set forth in Education Law, § 2022 [provision for local district financing]; and § 3602 [apportionment of State aid]) by which funds raised by locally imposed taxes are augmented by allocations of State moneys in accordance with a variety of formulas and grants, violates the equal protection clauses of both the State and the Federal Constitutions and the education article of our State Constitution
Succinctly stated, it is the gravamen of the complaint of the original plaintiffs (and the findings of the courts below provide factual support for their argument) that property-rich districts have an ability to raise greater local tax revenue enabling them to provide enriched educational programs beyond the fiscal ability of the property-poor districts. The intervenors argue that although they are not disadvantaged in their ability to raise gross revenue from local sources, in consequence of the economic factors of metropolitan overburden the net effective economic ability of the city districts falls well below that of noncity districts (and the factual determinations made below support their argument). Both then assert that State aid as presently granted serves to perpetuate, and even to exacerbate, these disparities.
After an extended nonjury trial which produced 23,000 pages of transcript and 400 exhibits, the Justice presiding issued a judgment declaring that the State's public school finance system violates both the equal protection clause (art I, § 11) and the education article (art XI, § 1) of the State Constitution and, as to the cities whose interests are represented by the intervenors, the equal protection clause (14th Amdt, § 1) of the Federal Constitution as well. The Appellate Division, by a divided court, modified the judgment of the trial court; while concurring in the determination that the provisions of the State Constitution had been violated, the appellate court rejected the conclusion that the intervenors had also established a violation of the Federal Constitution. Justice HOPKINS, concurring in part and dissenting in part, rejected all claims of denial of equal protection, but concluded that the present "maze of convoluted intricacies and provisos" of State aid fails to constitute a "basic State-wide fiscal system for education" as required in his view by the education article of the State Constitution (83 A.D.2d 217, 267-268). We now modify the order of the Appellate Division and direct that judgment be entered declaring that the present admixture of statutory provisions for State aid to local school districts, considered
At the outset it is appropriate to comment briefly on the context in which the legal issues before us arise. Although New York State has long been acknowledged to be a leader in its provision of public elementary and secondary educational facilities and services, and notwithstanding that its per pupil expenditures for such purposes each year are very nearly the highest in the Nation,
The determination of the amounts, sources, and objectives of expenditures of public moneys for educational purposes, especially at the State level, presents issues of enormous practical and political complexity, and resolution
The essence of the original plaintiffs' argument — that disparities in per pupil expenditures, resulting largely from differences in the value of assessable property per
With respect to the intervenors' position in this litigation, not in haec verba put before or considerd by the Supreme Court in San Antonio, that metropolitan overburden is an unequalizing force which must be remedied by compensating increases in State aid to city school districts, a response is found in the opinion by Justice HOPKINS at the Appellate Division, which observes that the cited inequalities existing in cities are the product of demographic, economic, and political factors intrinsic to the cities themselves, and cannot be attributed to legislative action or inaction. While unquestionably education faces competition in the contest for municipal dollars from other forms of public service for which nonmunicipal school districts bear no responsibility, municipal dollars flow into the cities' treasuries from sources other than simply real property taxes — sources similarly not available to nonmunicipal
We turn then to the claims of both original plaintiffs and intervenors that, whatever may be determined with respect to the equal protection clause of the Federal Constitution, a violation of the comparable provision of our State Constitution (art I, § 11) has been demonstrated — the conclusion reached by both courts below. Our attention must first be directed to identification of the standard appropriate to the subject now before us (financial support for public education) for examination as to whether there has been a violation of our constitutional mandate of equal protection (Montgomery v Daniels, 38 N.Y.2d 41, 59). The Appellate Division, declining to apply the measurement of strict scrutiny that had been employed by the trial court and under which the trial court had found the education finance system invalid, concluded that the intermediate or more careful scrutiny test described in Alevy v Downstate Med. Center of State of N. Y. (39 N.Y.2d 326) was properly to be employed — justifying this decision by its conclusion that the right to education in this State "represents an important constitutional interest". (83 AD2d, at p 241.) The choice of that intermediate standard, under which the appellate court also found the system invalid, cannot be
The circumstance that public education is unquestionably high on the list of priorities of governmental concern and responsibility, involving the expenditures of enormous sums of State and local revenue, enlisting the most active attention of our citizenry and of our Legislature, and manifested by express articulation in our State Constitution, does not automatically entitle it to classification as a "fundamental constitutional right" triggering a higher standard of judicial review for purposes of equal protection analysis. Thus, in Matter of Bernstein v Toia (43 N.Y.2d 437), where the concern was public assistance to the needy — clearly a matter of significant interest, provision for which is similarly included in our State Constitution
No classification of persons is present in the case now before us, in which the claimed unequal treatment is among school districts resulting from disparity as to revenue available for educational purposes in consequence of unequal tax bases or unequal demands on local revenue. The claim is of discrimination between property-poor and property-wealthy school districts. No authority is cited to us, however, that discrimination between units of local government calls for other than rational basis scrutiny.
Our inquiry is therefore only whether there has been demonstrated the absence of a rational basis for the present school financing system, premised as it is on local taxation within individual school districts with supplemental State aid allocated in accordance with legislatively approved formulas and plans. Addressing the submissions of the original plaintiffs, our conclusion is that there has not been such a showing, and that the justification offered by the State — the preservation and promotion of local control of education — is both a legitimate State interest and one to which the present financing system is reasonably related.
Under the existing system the State is divided into more than 700 local school districts, each of which varies from the others and, from time to time, varies within itself, in greater or lesser degree, as to number of pupils and value of assessable real property, as well as with respect to numerous other characteristics, including personal wealth of its taxpayers. Outside the cities in the State (in which school funding is a part of the total municipal fiscal process), funds for the support of the education program offered in the schools of a district are raised through the imposition of local taxes following voter authorization
It is the willingness of the taxpayers of many districts to pay for and to provide enriched educational services and facilities beyond what the basic per pupil expenditure figures will permit that creates differentials in services and facilities. Justification for a system which allows for such willingness was recognized by the Supreme Court of the United States in San Antonio School Dist. v Rodriguez (411 U.S. 1, 48, n 102, supra) quoting with approval a statement which accompanied the State of Hawaii's 1968 amendment of its educational finance statute to permit counties to collect funds locally and spend them on their schools over and above the wholly State-funded program: "Under existing law, counties are precluded from doing anything in this area, even to spend their own funds if they desire. This corrective legislation is urgently needed in order to allow counties to go above and beyond the State's standards and provide educational facilities as good as the people of the counties want and are willing to pay for. Allowing local communities to go above and beyond established minimums to provide for their people encourages the best features of democratic government." (Hawaii Sess Laws, 1968, act 38, § 1.) Any legislative attempt to make
The State-wide $360-per-pupil flat grant provided by State aid legislation is immune from attack under the equal protection clause, for on its face there is no inequality in this per pupil distribution of State aid which is allocated to all school districts without differentiation. Nor does the fact that the "save harmless" or special aid grants accrue to the benefit of only those districts which stand to suffer identified harm by reason of changing property values or of diminishing pupil registration serve to invalidate the school financing system. In addition to the fact that only a minimal amount of State aid is distributed under this category, we cannot say that there is no rational basis for the Legislature's selection of districts subject to these impacts as those for whom alleviating relief is appropriate and for its provision for such relief so long as the
As to the intervenors, their contentions that they are denied equal protection under the State Constitution must be rejected for the same reasons that their comparable claims under the Federal Constitution are rejected (supra, at pp 41-42).
Finally, we consider the claim, upheld by all the Judges below, that the present school financing system violates the education article (art XI, § 1) of our State Constitution. It is there required that "[t]he legislature shall provide for the maintenance and support of a system of free common schools, wherein all the children of this state may be educated."
It is significant that this constitutional language — adopted in 1894 at a time when there were more than 11,000 local school districts in the State, with varying amounts of property wealth offering disparate educational opportunities — makes no reference to any requirement that the education to be made available be equal or substantially equivalent in every district. Nor is there any provision either that districts choosing to provide opportunities beyond those that other districts might elect or be able to offer be foreclosed from doing so, or that local control of education, to the extent that a more extensive program were locally desired and provided, be abolished. What appears to have been contemplated when the education article was adopted at the 1894 Constitutional Convention was a State-wide system assuring minimal acceptable facilities and services in contrast to the unsystematized delivery of instruction then in existence within the State. Nothing in the contemporaneous documentary evidence compels the conclusion that what was intended was a system assuring that all educational facilities and services would be equal throughout the State.
Interpreting the term education, as we do, to connote a sound basic education, we have no difficulty in determining that the constitutional requirement is being met in this State, in which it is said without contradiction that the average per pupil expenditure exceeds that in all other States but two. There can be no dispute that New York has long been regarded as a leader in free public education. Because decisions as to how public funds will be allocated among the several services for which by constitutional imperative the Legislature is required to make provision are matters peculiarly appropriate for formulation by the legislative body (reflective of and responsive as it is to the public will), we would be reluctant to override those decisions by mandating an even higher priority for education in the absence, possibly, of gross and glaring inadequacy —
For the reasons stated,
I believe the sad record of this case demonstrates that in material manner the public school system of New York State, to which falls responsibility for the education of well over three million children, does not rise to the level dictated by a realistic reading of the State constitutional mandate for the "maintenance and support of a system of free common schools, wherein all the children of this state may be educated" (NY Const, art XI, § 1 [emphasis added]).
Justice L. KINGSLEY SMITH of the State Supreme Court, after presiding over the 122-day trial at which this matter was exhaustively explored, found that it failed to do so (94 Misc.2d 466). Justice LEON D. LAZER, writing on this point in a painstaking and penetrating opinion for the Appellate Division, came to the same conclusion (83 A.D.2d 217, 219). Concurring in this view, Justices JAMES D. HOPKINS and MOSES M. WEINSTEIN each emphasized his position by writing separately to this effect. Nor did the recent Report and Recommendations of the distinguished official New York State Special Task Force on Equity and Excellence in Education, whose independent inquiry was precipitated by the findings in this case, arrive at a different appraisal. And Governor Hugh L. Carey's Elementary and Secondary School Message, delivered to the current session of the Legislature on February 17, 1982, was in the same vein.
In this connection, it is worthy of special note, in a world where life and law must not live in separate compartments, that the Governor, responding to the decrees of the afore-mentioned courts, and quoting the Task Force's statement that "in the education of children, the demands of morality are as compelling as the commands of legality", recommended a five-year program to "make equal education opportunity a reality".
At the very outset of my analysis, I put at issue the majority's assertion (majority opn, at p 43, n 5) that the inclusion of the education article in our State Constitution, far from carrying the weight of a like insertion in the Federal Constitution, where it has no counterpart, may have little more significance than would a mere "statutory articulation". I would think that a far more likely theory, consistent with our Federal form of Government, is that primary concern for education was to be that of the States rather than of the Union and that the article's placement in the State Constitution was all the more crucial in the context of the pluralistic political process of which the Tenth Amendment speaks (US Const, 10th Amdt).
In any meaningful ordering of priorities, it is in the impact education makes on the minds, characters and capabilities of our young citizens that we must find the answer to many seemingly insoluble societal problems. In the long run, nothing may be more important — and therefore more fundamental — to the future of our country. Can it be gainsaid that, without education there is no exit from the ghetto, no solution to unemployment, no cutting down on crime, no dissipation of intergroup tension, no mastery of the age of the computer? Horace Mann put it pragmatically that education is not only "the great equalizer of men", but, by alleviating poverty and its societal costs, more than pays for itself. So, too, only this past week, the Supreme Court of the United States reminded us that
Even more pointed is how the sponsors of the education article perceived it. The spokesman for the unanimous Education Committee of the Constitutional Convention which immediately preceded the one at which the article was adopted, reported it in these words: "If there is any thing that should be constitutionalized because of its great importance, it is the all-important, overriding interest of education. Sir, I regard it as being paramount to every other interest in this State. I regard this article as being more important to the people of the State, to every man, woman and child in the State, than any other article that has been under consideration in this Convention" (1867-1868 NY Constitutional Convention, 4 Proceedings & Debates, p 2856).
Though an unrelated political controversy foreclosed any amendment of the State Constitution that year, when it next was amended, in 1894, the article as we know it today was adopted on a report which apparently had not retreated a bit from the position that "[t]here seems to be no principle upon which the people of this commonwealth are so united and agreed as this, that the first great duty of the State is to protect and foster its educational interests" (1894 NY Constitutional Convention, Doc No. 62, p 3). The report went on to note (at p 4), "that within the last half century of constitutional revision no other State of the Union has considered it superfluous or unwise to make such an affirmation in its fundamental law" and that the article "requires not simply schools, but a system; not merely that they shall be common, but free, and not only that they shall be numerous, but that they shall be sufficient in number, so that all the children of the State may, unless otherwise provided for, receive in them their education. No desire to confine the new Constitution to the
It is in juxtaposition to this contemporary commentary by the fathers of our education article, which, revealingly, came to be known as "the children's Bill of Rights" (2 Lincoln, Constitutional History of New York, p 206), that a sampling of the facts regarding the actual impact of the system as it now exists should be examined. For this purpose, we may well quote from the Appellate Division's excellent synopses, first, as to the four intervenor cities (Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo and New York City) and, second, as to the many individual districts who initiated this suit.
The plight of the cities, found to be attributable to the inexorable drain of a municipal overburden
The Trial Judge's summary is apt: "When the cities concentrate resources on pupils with special needs, other pupils, including those who are in fact disadvantaged but not reached by special programs, are subjected to educational deprivation * * * Many pupils attend classes in buildings which were shown to be in need of repairs and lacking in facilities for counseling, study or recreation. Pupils attending schools in the large cities were shown to be provided with less physical security in their schools; less transportation; restricted sports and extracurricular activity; inadequate library and health services and diminished offerings in art and music. In summary, the failure to provide State aid on an equitable basis deprived the children in the large city districts of an equal education opportunity" (94 Misc 2d, at pp 518-519).
Now, as to the nonintervening plaintiffs, while their problems may not be compounded by municipal overburden, they suffer from a qualitatively, if not, quantitatively related malaise produced by a daunting and difficult finance system so onerous in its effect on districts poor in realty wealth (see 83 A.D.2d 217, esp at pp 223-226) and so complex in its application that Justice JAMES D. HOPKINS, concurring in the majority's finding that the State is violating the State Constitution's education article, felt called upon to complain that "the design of a uniform and harmonious system conceived by its nineteenth century authors had been frustrated and distorted" into "a veritable jungle of labyrinthine incongruity", "an Ossa of confusion piled on a Pelion of disorder". (83 AD2d, at p 269.) In everyday terms, the net result is illuminated again by the Appellate Division's recitation, this time that:
Surely, if it were meet to substitute the minimized reading the majority would give the education article for the hope and promise with which the constitutional delegates wrote it, it could not be said as a matter of law that the picture painted by this proof of disparities and discriminations complied with even the undefined "minimal acceptable facilities and services" or the broadly stated "sound basic education" to which it would be thus reduced. The fact is, of course, that in this past century, as high school and college statistics show, the acceptable level of education in our country has risen, not fallen.
Responsively, the constitutional demands of our State's education article, must be deemed to have kept pace. For, while, as a practical matter, the Federal Constitution may be said to fix a floor for the rights of our people, the ceiling may be set by each State's own constitutional charter (see, generally, my dissent in Matter of Esler v Walters, 56 N.Y.2d 306, 315).
This brings me to the unequal protection phase of this case for, as I see it, whether taken separately or in their combined effect, the guarantees of the two converging constitutional provisions here at stake preclude the unequal and inadequate public schooling which children in property poor or fiscally overburdened areas of this State must endure.
It then proceeded along an analytical path which included recognition (1) that equality of educational opportunity is an important State constitutional interest in New York (see, also, Plyler v Doe, 457 U.S. 202, supra; Brown v Board of Educ., 347 U.S. 483, 489), (2) that the extensive invidious disparities in the availability of this opportunity are born of the classifications based on property or fiscal wealth of the districts in which the affected children reside, (3) that preservation of local controls, the consideration the State (and now the majority here) offers for imposing the statutory plan, is so confined by what a limited local tax base will permit that its vaunted furtherance of local independence is illusory rather than real, and (4) that by
Finally, two related equal protection questions may be worthy of comment.
The first of these is that it is not to be assumed that the equal protection clause of the Federal Constitution was not also impinged. Although the Appellate Division, as an intermediate tribunal, thought it best to avoid the question, San Antonio School Dist. v Rodriguez (411 U.S. 1) may leave more leeway than some believe. In Rodriguez, there was no claim that the statute malapportioned State school aid by mismeasuring the funding capacities and needs of city districts. Rather, the Supreme Court there expressly stated its concern lest the problems of the "overburdened core-city school districts" in that case be exacerbated rather than eased by recognition of the theory pressed by their plaintiffs.
The second bears on the analysis provisionally suggested in Justice WEINSTEIN'S concurring opinion — that strict scrutiny may have been an appropriate test. This formulation was premised largely on the undisputed fact that the existing education aid formulae have an adverse effect, not only on pupils from impoverished families, but also on a large percentage of the nearly 750,000 "minority" students (black, Hispanic, American Indian, Asian and others). About 110,000 are unable to participate in school effectively in English and many are illiterate in their native tongues as well.
Raised, therefore, was the spectre of an issue of discrimination involving the approximately 83% of the "minority" people who reside in the intervenor cities. Its occasion would be the inability of these cities, left bereft of the means to do so, to cope with the social and educational breakdown affecting a large group identifiable by race, country of origin or alienage. This issue, of course, is made far less tenuous, if that it ever was, by last week's Federal equal protection decision in Plyler v Doe (supra). Be that as
In fine, poor children, no less than rich, and the Nation of which both are a part, are entitled to an education that prepares today's students to face the world of today and tomorrow. Those who took and tolled the testimony tell us that, by any standard that counts, for the multitudinous many no such educational opportunity truly exists. Understandably, then, as the Governor put it to the Legislature just the other month, "Financial inequalities in education are more pronounced than at any time in the State's history" and "There can be no disagreement that New York's school finance program must be reformed". Because, nevertheless, as the record reveals, our present method of financing education grossly distorts our ability to do so, and because I agree with the Appellate Division that it is constitutionally defective, my vote is to uphold the order of that court.
Order modified, without costs, in accordance with the opinion herein and, as so modified, affirmed.
Among those cases sustaining one or both of such challenges are Washakie County School Dist. No. 1 v Herschler (606 P.2d 310 [Wyo] [denial of equal protection]); Horton v Meskill (172 Conn. 615 [denial of equal protection and violation of constitutional article, "free public elementary and secondary schools"]); Serrano v Priest (5 Cal.3d 584 [denial of equal protection]); Robinson v Cahill (62 N.J. 473, cert den sub nom. Dickey v Robinson, 414 U.S. 976 [denial of equal protection and violation of constitutional article, "a thorough and efficient system of free public schools"]).
The dissenter, however, misapprehends the issue before us on this appeal. It is not whether education is of primary rank in our heirarchy of societal values; all recognize and support the principle that it is. It is not whether there are great and disabling and handicapping disparities in educational opportunities across our State, centered particularly in our metropolitan areas; many recognize and decry this state of affairs. The ultimate issue before us is a disciplined perception of the proper role of the courts in the resolution of our State's educational problems, and to that end, more specifically, judicial discernment of the reach of the mandates of our State Constitution in this regard. The expostulation of the dissenter, and the urgings of those who would alleviate the existing disparities of educational opportunity, are properly to be addressed to the Legislature for its consideration and weighing in the discharge of its obligation to provide for the maintenance and support of our State's educational system. Primary responsibility for the provision of fair and equitable educational opportunity within the financial capabilities of our State's taxpayers unquestionably rests with that branch of our government.
As we wrote in Montgomery v Daniels (38 N.Y.2d 41, 53, supra): "It is not our office to rejoice or to lament. A fair regard for the basic polity of separation of powers dictates judicial respect for the proper role of the legislative branch, and pride in the uniquely and essentially neutral role of the judicial branch. That judicial role is both a privilege and a limitation." It would neither serve the purposes of orderly government nor honor the role of the judiciary to lay aside standards of judicial review recently held appropriate (in decisions in which the dissenter joined) because in this instance corrective measures may, in the view of many, be much needed with respect to the provision of financial support for our educational system.