New York’s Constitutional Right to a Sound Basic Education A Critique of Aristy-Farer v. State of New York

by Jaclyn Millar, 2L, New York Law School

“The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically.  Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

Law school provides students the invaluable opportunity to expose oneself to numerous subjects.  As students, we strengthen fundamental writing skills, exercise critical thinking skills in logic and reasoning, and develop an appreciation for how the law has evolved throughout history.  Since I began law school, I have come to value not only my legal education, but my education from elementary school, high school, and college.  Therefore, when I came across Aristy-Farer v. State of New York, a case which addresses children’s constitutional rights to sound basic education, I was encouraged to share my findings to highlight the need for educational reform.

Aristy-Farer v. State of New York arises from a series of legislative efforts and litigation, which ultimately sought to uphold the State of New York’s constitutional obligations to provide all children with “a sound basic education.”[1] The Campaign for Fiscal Equality (“CFE”) cases[2] led the State Legislature to write the Budget and Reform Act of 2007, which included programs that established formulas to help finance schools.[3]  However, after the 2008 recession, the State froze such programs and  their formulas were never implemented.[4]  Additionally, the State enacted the “Annual Professional Performance Review” (“APPR”) in 2010, which “required the State to withhold education aid to any district that did not implement a plan to assess the performance of teachers and administrators.”[5] Because New York City did not comply with the APPR in 2012, , the State withheld funds for education.[6]

Aristy-Farer, parents of public school students, brought action against the State of New York, alleging that defendants deprived public school students in New York City of their right to a sound basic education by withholding $290 million.[7]  Additionally, Aristy-Farer asserted due process and equal protection claims, “based on state’s withholding of funds from school districts that did not fully implement an APPR.”[8] The Court dismissed the Aristy-Farer complaint for failure to provide sufficient factual allegations that the state’s one-time withholding of $290 million caused a deprivation of a sound basic education.[9]

New Yorkers for Students’ Educational Rights (“NYSER”) brought a second action against the State of New York.[10]  NYSER asserted that defendants failed to comply with the CFE cases by depriving the New York City school district of the “minimum constitutional level funding.”[11]  Furthermore, NYSER asserted that defendants’ failure to apply the Budget and Reform Act of 2007 deprived students in school districts across the state of their constitutional right to a sound basic education.  The Court held that NYSER sufficiently pleaded that the state’s inadequate funding deprived students of a sound basic education in the New York City and Syracuse school districts only.[12]  Judge Rowan D. Wilson, writing for the majority, stated that NYSER failed to allege a causal connection between the state’s inadequate funding and all school districts.[13]

In a dissent written by Judge Jenny Rivera, Rivera disagreed that the NYSER’s complaint failed to sufficiently plead causes of actions regarding all school districts.[14]  She stated that NYSER sufficiently pleaded facts pertaining to deficiencies in all school districts, despite their more robust descriptions of deficiencies in the New York City and Syracuse school districts. Furthermore, Rivera criticizes the majority’s heightened pleading standard and narrow interpretation of financial challenges.[15]

The outcome of Aristy-Farer leaves critical questions open regarding the text and scope of the State’s constitutional obligations to provide a sound basic education and the casual relationship between funding and education.

The CFE litigation established every child’s constitutional right to a sound basic education.[16]   A sound basic education includes “basic literacy, calculating, and verbal skills necessary to enable children to eventually function productively as civic participants capable of voting and serving on a jury.”[17]  Although the court in Aristy-Farer acknowledged the need to protect this right, one could argue that the phrase, “sound basic education,” presents several questions.  What does “sound” mean in this context?  What is “basic”?  What criteria, in terms of academic curriculum, must schools meet to achieve the “basic literacy, calculating, and verbal skills” required for a “sound basic education”?  On the one hand, all school districts in New York State implements Common Core standards and standardized tests.  On the other hand, there is still a clear disparity between high- and low-performing schools.  In that respect, are all students truly receiving a sound basic education?  One could argue that the State’s failure to sufficiently fund public schools by freezing funds from the Budget and Reform Act of 2007 had a disparate impact on low-performing schools, where resources to assure a sound basic education are immensely needed.

Furthermore, Aristy-Farer raises the issue of whether there is a casual relation between inadequate funding and the deprivation of a sound basic education.[18] To prove a violation of the State Constitution’s Educational Article, the plaintiff must prove: (1) that the school district is deprived of a sound basic education; and (2) that the school district’s deprivation was due to causes “attributable to the State.”[19]  In Aristy-Farer, NYSER contends that the State failed to comply with its constitutional obligation to provide a sound basic education to all public school children in New York state.[20]  The State’s failure is evidenced by their failure to implement the legislative solutions, including the Budget and Reform Act of 2007, which were passed because of the funding problems presented in the CFE cases.[21]  As a result of the “frozen” funds, public school children across New York state have been deprived of a sound basic education.  Still, the Court found that NYSER’s complaint must factually support a causal link between the lack of funds and deprivation of a sound basic education for each school district.  On the one hand, there is procedural importance in presenting a well-pleaded complaint.  On the other hand, the substantive policy implications are greater.  The CFE cases were litigated for over 20 years.[22]  The cases, themselves, highlighted the realities of inadequate public school education and insufficient financial support.  The cases, themselves, established the casual connection between funding and education.  The reason why the state legislature created the Budget and Reform Act of 2007 was to help solve the problems presented in the CFE cases.  Aristy-Farer is a result of the State’s failure to comply with the solutions presented by the legislature, which included the Budget and Reform Act of 2007.  In a sense, the argument is circular.  As the dissent states, the fact that NYSER provided “more robust” factual allegations in the New York City and Syracuse districts does not preclude a finding that other, and perhaps all, school districts in New York City are deprived of a sound basic education.[23]

In sum, Aristy-Farer has presented the ongoing need for educational advocacy.  As we, as law students, engage on another year of learning, it is essential to consider the future of education and how we can support the next generation of law students and lawyers.

[1] Campaign for Fiscal Equality v. State of N.Y., 86 N.Y. 2d, 307, 316 (1995) (CFE I).
[2] The CFE cases disputed whether the State of New York was providing sufficient funds to public schools so that every child received a sound basic education.
[3] Aristy-Farer v. State of N.Y., 2017 NY Slip Op 05175 at *6.
[4] Id.
[5] Id.
[6] Id.
[7] Id. at *22.
[8] Id.
[9] Id. at *22.
[10] Id. at *1.
[11] Id. at *15.
[12] Id. at *18.
[13] Id. at *19.
[14] Id. at *25.
[15] Id. at *35-*36
[16] Campaign for Fiscal Equality, 86 N.Y. 2d, 307, 316 (1995) (CFE I).
[17] Id.
[18]Aristy-Farer, 2017 NY Slip Op 05175 at *19.
[19] N.Y. Civil Liberties Union v. State, 4 N.Y.3d 175, 791 N.Y.S.2d 507, 824 N.E.2d 947 (2005)[20] Aristy-Farer, 2017 NY Slip Op 05175 at *15
[21] Id. at *6.
[22] Id. at *39.
[23] Id. at *32.