The Finance Equity Project grew out of a commitment to having young people inquire into the circumstances and conditions of their own education. Its development as participatory action research is described in this short history by Janice Bloom and Lori Chajet, both of whom were involved as students at the Graduate Center and project co-researchers during the project’s evolution:

“Owning an Education: 
Young People Inquiring into their High School and College Educations”

Below you can read in its entirety one of the products of the Finance Inequity project–an inquiry and a series of questions posed in a piece coauthored by students at New York’s East Side Community High School, with assistance from Bloom and Chajet.

What You Thought We Didn’t Know: 
Finance Inequity and the New York Public Schools
By: Candice DeJesus, Nikaury Acosta, Seekqumarie Kellman, Monica Jones, Lisa Sheard, Noman Rahman, Jasmine Castillo, Jeremy Taylor, Amanda Osorio and Emily Genao, with help from Lori Chajet and Janice Bloom

This youth research work was made possible through grants from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Spencer Foundation, and the Edwin Gould Foundation.

New York City educates 37% of New York State’s population but receives 33% of the state budget. In Great Neck NY, they spend 17,640 dollars per student for their education. In New York City they spend 9,623 dollars per student. A school in Brooklyn wrote in an article: “the building is too small to accommodate 325 students there is no gym, library or cafeteria. There is one bathroom with one toilet for over 40 staff members.”

We are a group of seniors at NYC’s East Side Community High School examining the fiscal inequities among urban and suburban schools. We have been researching what a “sound, basic education” is as part of a project with graduate students from CUNY. Article XI of the New York State Constitution says, “The legislature shall provide for the maintenance and support of the system of free common schools, wherein all the children of the state may be educated.” In the case of the Board of Education, Levittown Free School District v. Nyquist (1982) the court interpreted this to mean that all students be given the opportunity of a “Sound Basic Education.”

East Side Community High School is a small urban school that ranges from grades 7-12. Students have always been graded by using performance-based assessment instead of standardized tests; our graduation depends upon our portfolios of work–including essays, projects, research papers and tests. We don’t just look at the dates and times in history or memorize math formulas. We look at the how and why as well. And that’s what got us to do this project. Unfortunately our school beliefs and mission are being compromised by the new Regents requirements–which don’t show what we as students have been learning in terms of analyzing material and making connections to the present day and to ourselves–but that’s a whole ‘nother story.

In comparison to other high schools in the city, East Side’s resources aren’t the greatest, but they aren’t the worst. The gym isn’t really a “real” gym. The ceiling is so low that when one of us tries to make a jump shot, the basketball hits the ceiling. Our library is too small and it’s inadequate in terms of books, and our science labs are virtually nonexistent. At the same time, because our teachers take the time out to write numerous grants to get more activities and resources to our school, we have an arts program, a college advisor, and some other resources. We benefit greatly from this. At the same time, we know other schools get these kinds of things without this extra effort-they get it because they have money in their budgets for it. We wondered why our school was so broke and if we are being cheated of an education, so we decided to take action.

Our research group met twice a week throughout the school year. We had discussions about the issue, did readings and conducted interviews with different people-students, principals, community activists, professors of education, lawyers and politicians. We learned that school budgets are made up of local and state money-and that the local money comes mostly from property taxes. We also learned that the State doesn’t take into consideration how much money a local district already has, or what the needs of the students in that district are, when decided how much each district will get. We conducted a survey with 150 students in our school and we learned that 91% of the students have no knowledge about how school funding occurs. However, 88% of the students believe that funding is a huge factor in their education and 75% believe their school does not receive a sufficient amount of funding.

We visited a range of schools from urban and suburban like South Bronx High School in Bronx NY, Columbia High School in Maplewood South Orange NJ, Foxlane High School in Bedford NY, and Mamaroneck High School in Westchester County NY. We saw what it was like to be a student in each school. When visiting each school, our main focus was on the amount of resources, facilities, and opportunities available to students and what differences those resources make. We focused on three things, the diversity amongst the students, where do students classified as “minorities” stand within their school and the school’s resources. When walking down the halls of South Bronx High School-which is 88.8% Latino, 9.9% African-American, .6% white- we saw overcrowded classrooms, computer labs with outdated equipment, and lack of resources. As opposed to when walking through Mamaroneck High School-which is – we saw many computer labs with updated equipment, a college information center, two gyms, and two theaters. While 47.3% of South Bronx’s students are English Language Learners and 75.9% qualify for free-lunch (which means they come from low-income families), 2.1% of Mamaroneck students are English Language Learners and 2.7% qualify for free lunch. Not surprisingly, while Mamaroneck’s 12th grade was almost the same size as its 9th grade in 1999 (there were 59 more 9th graders than 12th graders), South Bronx’s 9th grade was almost four-times as large as its 12th grade in the same year (there were 354 more 9th graders than 12th graders). While Mamaroneck offers 14 AP classes, South Bronx used to offer 2 and currently offers none; furthermore, while 32.8% of South Bronx’s graduates go on to a four-year college a far higher percent of Mamaroneck’s students do.

After visiting and learning about numerous high schools in New York, we have come to realize that things are not the same everywhere. There are schools that have lots and lots of money and there are schools that have nearly no money at all, zero, zilch, nada! Well maybe not nada but not enough money to even buy a book. Is this really a problem or is it just nothing to worry about? Does money really affect a child’s ability to learn and receive a sound basic education?

We’re not the only ones looking into this issue. In fact, there’s a case right now before the highest court in New York that will decide if things are going to change. Check this out:
In ’92, the Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) went to court in order to get permission to sue New York State. They wanted to go to court because they felt that kids in New York City schools were not getting the education that’s required by our state constitution-a “sound, basic education.” And to do that, they said, the city schools needed more money. The permission to go ahead with the case wasn’t given until ’99. In that year, the case was tried in New York State Supreme Court. CFE argued that students needed skills in analyzing problems, solving those problems, communicating and working with others, and other things needed to do well in a working environment. To do this, they said, students need trained teachers, textbooks, classroom space and other resources. And what do city schools need to get all this? That’s right folks: MORE MONEY.

CFE succeeded in convincing the judge that New York City students weren’t getting a “sound basic education.” The judge in charge of the case, Justice DeGrasse, agreed with CFE, saying that certified teachers, smaller classrooms, and adequate resources were important to get a good education. This would mean the State would have to fork over more money to provide all this. But they didn’t want to do that. So Governor Pataki appealed the case.

The case moved up to the Appellate Division of the court system. The State hired “experts” (for $1 million) to say that having smaller classes and other improvements had no significant impact on a student’s education. And the majority of judges agreed, giving the State the victory. The score is now 1-1. The judge, who wrote the opinion, Justice Lerner, then had the nerve to say that a “sound basic education” can be received by the 8th grade. And this is coming at a time where the State now wants students to pass Regents exams to graduate high school. Why take Regents then? Why even go to high school? If students can learn all they need to know in order to function as a productive citizen in the 8th grade, then what is the point of having students struggle through high school or even college? The judges said that all we need to be able to do is vote, serve on a jury, and read those stupid little pamphlets that clutter up our mailboxes. To our research group and to all NYC public school students, this is a huge insult. How could this judge and the State have such low expectations for young people, especially those of color? The majority of students in urban settings are of color. They only expect us to take mind-numbing tests instead of questioning everything and really seeing how this world is. But then again, “no child should be left behind”. Well, according to President Bush’s new law anyway.

Right now, the case is in the highest court in New York, the Court of Appeals. The decision made here will be the final decision in this long battle for more funding for city schools. If CFE wins, the Legislature will have to fix these problems; but some are concerned that the Legislature will take a long time to make any changes. And what happens if CFE doesn’t win? Can’t the New York State Legislature do something about this?

What we have learned is that wealthy suburbs don’t want to give their money to city schools. One thing you have to understand is that the state, city and federal government all put in money to pay for New York City schools. The way money is given to New York City schools is that 56% is from New York City, 40% is from New York State and 4% is from the federal government. The amount you get for education depends on where you live, because local tax revenues provide major funding, that is 56% of school funding. And different districts raise different amounts for their schools. New York City educates 37% of the State’s population but receive 33% of the budget, so they don’t even get a fair share from New York State.

The final decision in the case all depends on how a “sound basic education” is defined. Because it’s such an important question, we have made that part of our research. We asked many people that we interviewed this question because we wanted to know their opinion on what a sound basic education is. The Principal of East Side Community High School, Mark Federman, said a sound basic education is an education that prepares you for college. Principal of Art and Technology, Ann Geiger says she feels that she is still getting an education, so a sound basic education shouldn’t be limited. Liz Kruger the New York state senator says a sound basic education should include the three R’s, reading writing and arithmetic. She also says we should stay with the changing times, like learning computer skills, critical thinking, analyzing things and knowing how to do research. She added that music was very important to her in High School because through music she understood math. A senior from Mamaroneck High School says a sound basic education is “education of the world through study of human history to prepare young adults for the world of tomorrow.” A freshman at Hunter College in New York City said that schools should prepare you for college. She had a hard time in college because her school didn’t have enough resources to prepare for the requirements of college. So it seems that most people we asked think that a sound basic education should provide students more learning than just how to vote and to serve on a jury.

However, the court is still debating this issue. What is the obligation of the government to educate its children? There are many arguments about whether money matters in terms of students succeeding. Justice Lerner does not think it is the only factor. He said, “Money cannot take all of the blame. Academics will not get better if students don’t take the chance.” Clayton Gillette, a professor at New York University School of Law said and: “They’re [Appellate Division] willing to say that dollars in does not necessarily equate with equality out, that there are other factors: poverty, immigration, labor contracts.” His point is that government can give thousands and thousands of dollars and some students just might not take advantage of that great opportunity. Dr. Armor argues, “Additional resources like smaller classes and better qualified teachers cannot help poor and minority children in New York City achieve at high levels.”

While it is true that students need to work hard and take advantage of opportunities, if a school does not have qualified teachers, up to date books, or working computers, they cannot be prepared for college, work or l ife itself. What could a school do with more money? For one, students could have qualified teachers. In 41% of the elementary schools, 63% of the middle schools and 64% of the high schools, 6 or more full time teachers lack permanent state certification in New York City. With money provided, better teachers would be hired. Counselors, up to date textbooks and instructional materials, contemporary learning technology, and a safe and clean learning environment can also be offered to the students. Overcrowded schools, little resources and no facilities have a major impact on a student’s education. What happens when students enter college and don’t know how to research information on a paper that has been assigned to them? A Queens elementary school wrote, ” We have no labs. We have very little science equipment. We run hands on science program, with the help of PA [parent association] donations.” This is horribly sad. What if the Parents Association does not have that kind of money? What happens when these students go to college and they don’t know what to do with a microscope?

There are many failing schools in New York City. There are not many–if any–failing schools in the suburbs. If city schools had more money they could get better teachers to work with students who need help to succeed, and there wouldn’t be that many failing schools in the 5 boroughs of New York City. Wait, but there’s hope for the students in the failing schools. President Bush passed “No Child Left Behind” which says that any students that are attending failing schools have the opportunity to go to a school that isn’t considered a failing school. There’s only one problem with that: in the Bronx alone there are 25 schools that are considered failing. Where are the kids gonna go? How are all these students gonna be accommodated? These students won’t get a “sound basic education.” Instead of just moving students from one school to the next, why not just improve the school they are already in? And once again, that means MORE MONEY. But we’re just a couple of minority students that attend school in NYC. What would we know about this? We only see this about every single day of our lives. We think we would know what it takes to get a good education. But what’s your definition?