June 27, 2002

The Bare Minimum


Esther Brown was a white woman from Merriam, Kan., who, in 1948, tried to do something about the decrepit conditions at a grade school attended by blacks in the nearby town of South Park, which is where Mrs. Brown's maid lived.

In his brilliant and powerful book "Simple Justice," a history of the Brown v. Board of Education desegregation decision, Richard Kluger described a meeting that was held in a white school in South Park to discuss the conditions at the black school. Only whites were in attendance, and they were vicious toward Mrs. Brown. One woman tried to hit her.

When Mrs. Brown rose nervously to speak, she said: "Look, I don't represent these people. One of them works for me and I've seen the conditions of their school. I know none of you would want your children educated under such circumstances. They're not asking for integration ójust a fair shake."

Her comments were greeted with catcalls and she was told to go back where she had come from. Ms. Brown was radicalized by the encounter and she became an important crusader for improved schools for blacks and integration.

I thought of this story when I read the destructive and shameful decision on public school funding that was handed down this week by a state appeals court in Manhattan. The Supreme Court's Appellate Division determined, in a 4-to-1 ruling, that it was quite all right for the state to continue shortchanging New York City's public school children.

The justices overturned a lower court ruling that held that the state had failed to provide New York City students with "a sound, basic education," as required by the State Constitution.

What the appellate panel ruled, in essence, was that the appalling reality of the school system in New York is fine. Forget that state aid formulas have cheated city schoolchildren for decades, while favoring the wealthy suburbs. Forget that so many of the city's classrooms are overcrowded, and that teachers (even with the most recent raise) are underpaid. Forget that many of the city's schools are so starved for cash that parents have to dig into their own pockets to pay the salaries of school librarians, kindergarten assistants and other staffers.

Forget that the one justice who dissented, David B. Saxe, wrote that "chronic underfunding, although interspersed with some years of greater funding, has also led to deterioration of school buildings, overcrowding, inadequacy of textbooks, library materials, laboratory supplies and basic classroom supplies, and, in some schools, even an insufficient number of desks and chairs."

None of that mattered because, in the view of the majority in Tuesday's ruling, the city's 1.1 million schoolchildren are already getting all that they are entitled to. The state is not obligated, the panel said, to provide the kids with anything more than a "minimally adequate opportunity" to receive a sound, basic education. An opportunity to achieve at about an eighth grade level was deemed sufficient, and that is already being provided, the justices ruled.

Justice Saxe, in his dissent, said the ruling meant logically that the state had "no meaningful obligation to provide any high school education at all."

The ruling held that preparing New York City's public school kids for the lowest-level, lowest-paying jobs is just fine. After all, as Justice Alfred D. Lerner, writing for three of the four justices in the majority, said, "Society needs workers in all levels of jobs, the majority of which may very well be low level."

Tuesday's ruling made it clear that the panel's majority views the city's schoolkids as being of very little value, unworthy of a decent education. More than 70 percent of those kids are Hispanic or black.

Robert Berne, a vice president of academic affairs at New York University, said on Tuesday, "No judge on that panel would send their kids to a school that provided for the kind of education that they say is adequate for New Yorkers."

I believe the judges, none of whom are Hispanic or black, would have handed down a different decision if the majority of the students in the New York City schools had been white.

The public school kids in New York City in 2002 are getting a dose of the unfair treatment endured by black kids who looked for a fair shake in South Park, Kan., more than half a century ago.†

Copyright 2002
The New York Times Company