A landmark lawsuit seeking to overturn the state's $13 billion school funding formula will go to trial next month after six years of preparation, an advocacy group said Tuesday.
If successful, the case would direct additional funding to the state's big cities -- including Buffalo -- and rural areas.
"It would bring about a complete change in the way school districts are financed," said Philip Rumore, president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation. "It would ensure that children throughout the state finally have a level playing field in terms of educational opportunity."
The case, which will be tried in Manhattan, technically applies only to New York City. However, a decision in favor of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, which initiated the suit, would overturn the statewide funding formula and direct the State Legislature to devise a new method for distributing school aid.
Funding formulas have been overturned in at least 17 states in the past several years. The last major challenge to New York's system was made in the early 1980s, when a lawsuit filed by the Levittown School District was unsuccessful.
The Campaign for Fiscal Equity maintains that New York City's schools are shortchanged because they have 37 percent of the state's public school enrollment but receive only 34 percent of New York's education aid, and that the city does not receive enough money from Albany to help students meet new educational standards and graduation requirements.
"The formula is based on political deals and advantages," said Michael A. Rebell, executive director of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity. "The resources the Regents say are necessary to give students a reasonable chance to meet the standards still are not forthcoming."
The state maintains that the current funding formula considers district wealth and student need. The New York City schools receive more than $3 billion from the state, which -- if spent efficiently -- is enough to provide a sound education, according to state officials. Rebell said poor and rural districts spend an average of about $6,000 per student, while wealthier suburban districts spend about $12,000. The goal of the lawsuit is to equalize opportunities without diluting quality or spending in those wealthy districts, Rebell said.
The group will call more than 100 witnesses, including State Education Commissioner Richard P. Mills and Thomas Sobol, Mills' predecessor as New York's education chief.
"We anticipate they're going to give helpful testimony on the importance of the standards and the need to provide students with opportunities in relation to those standards," Rebell said. "We're going to have Sobol tell portions of that story, and have Mills tell the more recent parts."
Sobol, now a professor at Columbia Teachers College, has been retained by the group as an expert.
The case is scheduled to begin before State Supreme Court Justice Leland DeGrasse on Oct. 12, and is expected to last at least two months. Regardless of the outcome, an appeal is considered a near certainty.
A companion federal lawsuit claims that the state funding formula discriminates against schools with high minority enrollments like Buffalo and other cities outside New York City. That case, filed by the New York Civil Liberties Union, is scheduled for trial next spring.