September 16, 2014; Albany Times Union

Using language that is normally reserved for proponents of public schools, a lawsuit has been filed in Albany, N.Y., alleging that the system for funding charter schools in the state is unconstitutional and discriminates against minorities. The lawsuit has been filed by parents of students attending charter schools in Rochester and Buffalo.

Specifically, the suit refers to the disparity in the amount of money given on a per student basis to charter schools, as compared to what is given to public schools. The claim being made is that the funding for charter school students is approximately three-fifths of what is given to public schools, according to the legal director of the Northeast Charter Schools Network, which is supporting the lawsuit. This, then, denies the students the right to a “sound basic education,” a right guaranteed in the New York State constitution.

In essence, the argument seems to boils down to the fact that charter schools are not offered funding on a per-student basis to enhance the physical environment of the schools. Public schools use as much as $2.7 billion in public aid for such things as new schools or enhanced technology. The estimate is that in Buffalo, N.Y., for example, students in public schools receive more than $23,000 per year, whereas students in charter schools receive $10,000 less.

Intriguingly, this very same argument was used more than ten years ago in a lawsuit against the State of New York, in which the allegation was that public schools in New York City were receiving less per pupil than schools in the suburbs, thus denying them their access to a “sound basic education.” That suit, known as the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, was successful, resulting in a court order requiring billions of dollars to be given to New York City public schools. That mandate apparently has not been completely fulfilled even 10 years later.

The lawsuit filed by the parents in Buffalo and Rochester successfully flips the argument about charter schools on its ear. Often, the argument is made that charter schools are using public funds to support students who would pay to attend private schools anyway, thus de-funding public schools that traditionally work with central city students in poverty. The demographics being cited to support this new lawsuit suggest that charter schools in these two communities serve proportionally more students of color and more students in poverty than do the public schools. So, the argument goes, the smaller level of per-pupil funding is discriminatory against students of color and students living in poverty.

“The evidence is clear: New York State is failing to fund a sound and basic education for a generation of students, resulting in a severe drop in the quality of education schools are able to offer.” Although he supports public education, this statement made by Jesse Laymon of Effective NY echoes the arguments of both advocates supporting greater funding of public schools in urban areas and those supporting greater funding of charter schools.—Rob Meiksins