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August 8, 2014

Demands States Provide Urban and Rural Students Constitutional Level Opportunities

Education Law Center (ELC) has joined the legal teams in Maisto v. State of New York and in Bacon v. NJ Department of Education, lawsuits on behalf of students in 8 Small City New York school districts and 16 poor, rural, New Jersey districts, respectively. These cases challenge deep resource deficits and unconstitutionally low funding by each State, in violation of their state constitutions.

"We are honored to represent the Maisto and Bacon students in these cases," said David Sciarra, ELC Executive Director. "They have waited long enough for the essential resources they need to succeed in school. We simply cannot stand idly by while these two states continue to violate the constitutional right to education in some of our poorest communities."

Maisto v. State, the Small Cities Case

On August 6, the New York State Association of Small City School Districts (NYSASCSD) announced that: "Noted civil rights lawyer David Sciarra joins lawsuit to secure education rights of students in NY small cities."

"We are extremely pleased to announce ELC has agreed to serve as co-counsel representing our school children in this important case," said Robert Biggerstaff, Executive Director of the NYSASCSD, which coordinates the litigation, known as the "Small Cities" case. "Mr. Sciarra and ELC will add substantial expertise gained from their ground-breaking successes for New Jersey students in the Abbott v. Burke litigation and from participation and support in school finance litigation in states across the nation."

The plaintiffs in the Small Cities case are students from Jamestown, Kingston, Mount Vernon, Newburgh, Niagara Falls, Port Jervis, Poughkeepsie and Utica. These districts serve 55,000 students in communities with 330,000 residents. All districts have student poverty rates between 50% and 94%, with an average of 72%. All have low property wealth and income and have experienced substantial shortfalls and state cuts in school funding in recent years.

The Small Cities plaintiffs are prepared to demonstrate their schools lack the resources---teachers, support staff, interventions for struggling students and other services---determined by the New York Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, to be essential for a "meaningful high school education." As a result, the students claim the State is violating their right to a sound basic education, as guaranteed by the New York Constitution.

Judge McNamara will preside over the trial of the case, and has set December 8 for the start of the trial.

ELC will join William Reynolds of the law firm of Bond, Schoeneck and King in Albany, lead counsel on the Small Cities legal team.

Bacon v. NJDOE

On July 28, David Sciarra and Millville, NJ, attorney Frederick Jacob sent a notice to acting Attorney General John Jay Hoffman demanding compliance with a 2009 remedial order by the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE), in Bacon. The NJDOE ordered that students in the 16 rural districts receive full K-12 funding under the School Funding Reform Act (SFRA)---the State's funding formula enacted in 2008. The NJDOE also ordered high quality, full-day preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds in the districts.

"Governor Christie's stubborn resistance to investing in our children leaves no alternative but to take appropriate legal action," said Mr. Sciarra.

"It's time to ensure children in the Bacon districts receive a thorough and efficient education," said Mr. Jacob, who has been certified by the New Jersey Supreme Court as a Certified Civil Trial Attorney for more than 25 years and has represented school districts for over 35 years. "If the Attorney General does not respond to our request in a timely and appropriate manner, we will have no choice but to go back to court."

After a lengthy trial in the Bacon lawsuit, the State Board of Education issued a ruling in 2006 finding that the right of students in the 16 districts to a "thorough and efficient" education guaranteed by the NJ Constitution was being violated.

In a March 2008 ruling, the NJ Appellate Court upheld the State Board's ruling and directed the NJDOE to assess each district. In September 2009, the NJDOE determined that the SFRA funding formula and universal, high quality preschool would remedy the constitutional violation and must be provided to each of these districts.

Despite this order, the State failed to deliver the mandated funding and preschool programs. As a result, five years after the NJDOE order, the State continues to violate students' constitutional rights.

"For years, we have been asking for the resources our students need and deserve to achieve success under the State and Common Core standards," said David Lindenmuth, Superintendent of the Clayton Public Schools, one of the Bacon districts. "Our schools are challenged by high poverty and mobility rates, but we continue to struggle with inadequate funding for teachers and staff, reasonable class sizes, facilities, and preschool programs."

Following enactment of the SFRA, the Bacon districts received increases in K-12 formula aid in 2008-09 and 2009-10. However, from 2011-12 through 2013-14, the districts did not receive any of the funding increases required by the formula. Even worse, Governor Chris Christie's massive school aid cut in FY2011 wiped out prior year increases.

The Bacon districts will not receive a funding increase or any funds for full-day preschool programs under the SFRA formula again this year - a blatant violation of the 2009 NJDOE order.

Mr. Sciarra is among the nation's leading civil rights lawyers and serves as lead counsel in the landmark Abbott v. Burke education rights case. He has led the ELC legal team in securing groundbreaking rulings requiring adequate school funding, school construction and comprehensive school reform, along with the nation's first high court ruling establishing the right of 3- and 4-year-olds to high quality early education. According to The New York Times, the Abbott rulings on education rights are the most important in the United States since Brown v. Board of Education.

Education Justice Press Contact:
Molly A. Hunter, Esq.
Director, Education Justice
email: mhunter@edlawcenter.org
voice: 973 624-1815 x19

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