NEW YORK — Public school students in New York City, the nation's largest school system, are not receiving a "sound basic education" as required by the state constitution, the Court of Appeals ruled Thursday.
"Tens of thousands of students are placed in overcrowded classrooms taught by unqualified teachers and provided with inadequate facilities and equipment," the state's highest court said. "The number of students in these straits is large enough to represent a systematic failure."
The court condemned current funding practices, concluding: "New York City schools have the most student need in the state and the highest costs yet receive some of the lowest per student funding and have some of the worst results."
Judges set a July 30, 2004, deadline for state officials to determine the actual cost of providing the city's 1.1 million pupils with a valid basic education.
A Manhattan-based coalition sued New York state for failing to give the city enough money to educate its children properly. The lawsuit sought to revise the state's funding formulas. It won in the lower courts but was reversed upon appeal. The state's highest court, in a 4-1 ruling, affirmed the lower court's decision.
The Court of Appeals also decided that every public school student in New York state is entitled to receive a meaningful high school education; the previous standard only called for completion of the eighth grade.
"Students require more than an eighth-grade education to function productively as citizens," the court said.
New York City officials praised the court's action.
"The state's court system said it's a new day for the city's school children," Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said. He stood at a City Hall news conference with lawyers for the coalition, the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, which includes parents, teachers unions, the League of Women Voters, minority groups and others.
"The state's highest court has ordered the state to right a wrong that has been allowed to exist for too many years," Bloomberg said. "For too long, the state has not given the city its fair share of education funds."
Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye, who wrote the majority opinion, did not spell out specifics of a new plan.
"We have neither the authority, nor the ability, nor the will to micromanage education funding," she said.
The Court of Appeals cited a New York State Education Department report that concluded the city's almost 1,200 schools are inferior to the rest of the state's in terms of teacher experience, pay and retention.
Schools with the highest percentage of minority children have the least experienced teachers who receive the lowest salaries, the report said.
In a dissenting opinion, Judge Susan Phillips Read said the connection between the level of state funding and deficiencies in the schools was not proved. She said New York City has one teacher for every 14.1 students, placing it in the top 10% of large school districts across the nation.
By comparison, Read added, Los Angeles, the nation's second biggest system, has one teacher for every 20.8 students.
"A wide variety of nonfinancial factors ... may contribute to academic failure," she said, "including mismanagement, excessive administration, misassigned teachers, misplaced spending priorities, outright corruption and improper emphasis on some programs."
She predicted a long trial, followed by lengthy appeals, after a new funding system for the city's schools is established.
"The majority has allowed its deep sympathy for educational excellence," Read wrote, "to overwhelm its sense of the proper and practical limits of the judicial function."