BUFFALO, N.Y. – As the deadline for New York’s 2004-5 budget approaches, education rights activists are demanding the state find money to comply with last year’s ruling that every child be provided with a “meaningful high school education.”

The Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE), which fought on this issue for 10 years and brought the successful lawsuit before the Court of Appeals, commissioned the New York Adequacy Study. That study has determined it will cost an additional $7 billion to fulfill the mandate.

Given that Gov. George Pataki, a Republican, has only allocated a 1 percent increase (less than inflation) for education in his proposed budget, a big fight is in the making. In a January 2001 decision, the state Supreme Court found that New York has consistently violated its constitution by failing to provide every child with a “sound, basic education.”

The ruling ordered the State Legislature to throw out the current school funding formula and create a new one. Gov. Pataki appealed that decision and, in June 2002, won the appeal with a now infamous finding by the court that an 8th grade education is all that New York’s children are entitled to.

Subsequently, in 2003 the CFE won its appeal of that decision when the Court of Appeals ruled that every student is entitled to a “meaningful high school education,” and that the current state school funding formula is unconstitutional. (In New York, the Court of Appeals is the highest court.)

The Alliance for Quality Education (AQE), a statewide coalition of over 230 groups, is calling for a $2 billion down payment in the 2004-05 budget as a first step in fulfilling that decision. This money would be utilized for urgent needs, such as smaller classes, enough qualified teachers and up-to-date learning materials.

Under Pataki’s current proposal, school districts such as the “Big Five” (Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Yonkers and New York City), which have large numbers of minority and poor students, will not be able to maintain current programs. Over the last three years, the Buffalo School District has laid off hundreds of teachers, including librarians and counselors, cut many programs and increased class sizes. The district also faces a $45 million budget gap for the 2004-05 school year.

Overall, the state is facing a $5 billion budget deficit, smaller than last year’s record deficit but still a huge gap. According to AQE, tax cuts enacted in the state since 1994 add up to $15 billion in lost revenue. They argue that if New York could afford to cut revenues by $15 billion because that was a priority, it can find $7 billion over the next four years to fund education.

New York has until July 30 to meet the court ordered deadline. If not, the case will go before a court appointed “special master,” who will then personally determine the formula. This would also mean that only New York City will receive additional funds, since the court case was based on the facts of that city’s school district.

New Yorkers can find out where their state representatives stand on this issue by checking the websites of AQE (www.aqe.org) and the Campaign for Fiscal Equity (www.cfe.org).

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org.