Bruised by suit, advocates try persuasion to boost school funds

Michael Rebell led the Campaign for Fiscal Equity’s landmark school finance lawsuit for 13 years, but for a long time the lawyer was conflicted about the case.

He believed what he ultimately convinced the courts: that the state had given New York City schools less than their fair share of funding. But he was also persuaded by a counter-argument that he heard during the litigation: that more money wouldn’t help schools whose biggest problem was poverty. And the lawsuit itself wasn’t helping him reconcile the tension.

“We have this adversary system for dealing with legal matters in our courts, where two warring sides take firm and opposite opinions,” he said. “The truth is sometimes more complicated than that.”

Now, months after CFE laid off its last employee and the state trimmed the equity dollars for the second time, Rebell is trying a different approach to advocate for poor students. As the director of the Campaign for Educational Equity, a think tank housed at Columbia University’s Teachers College, Rebell is setting out to win not a legal victory but the hearts and minds of policymakers.

His first step: To solicit a set of academic papers, released this week and discussed at Teachers College Tuesday night, that make the case for what he calls “comprehensive educational equity.” A main point of the papers is, as the CFE lawsuit contended and the New York Times reported earlier this week, that the state should give more to its schools — $4,750 per poor student, to be precise. But they also sketch out a policy platform that Rebell said could help close racial and class achievement gaps.

By redirecting existing funding streams and selling state bonds, the state could offer poor children health care, prekindergarten, and extended school days, the papers argue. Another paper costs out the up-front investment and found it would  pay off multiple times over because better educated people contribute more in taxes and require fewer social services.

In an interview yesterday, AFT President Randi Weingarten, who touted “community schools” that offer wraparound services in her first speech after taking over the national union in 2008, said deploying existing resources more efficiently could go a long way toward equalizing educational opportunity.

“In places like New York where you have mayoral control, there’s no reason why the mayor cannot manage the services that are directly under the mayor’s control,” she said.

But at a time when the state and many cities are cutting school funding, not augmenting it, convincing taxpayers to pitch in for children’s services could be a tough sell, panelists said at the presentation.

That’s especially true given that increases in school funding haven’t always translated into performance gains in the past, said State Education Commissioner John King.

“We have work to do to create a culture to support some of the research that’s here. We have work to do to convince people that another dollar invested will translate into better opportunities for kids,” he said. “And unfortunately in our sector that is not always the case. Part of that culture change will also be proving to people that we can deliver that.”

Rebell said he doesn’t expect new funding to start to flow overnight. Instead, he said, the research is meant to spark a conversation that could take years to have an impact.

Tomorrow, Rebell is set to give a lecture at Harvard Law School, whose flagship journal will publish his paper arguing that students have a legal right to educational equity. Massachusetts’ education chief will be in the audience, Rebell said, and that’s exactly the goal, at least for now.

“We’re not currently thinking in terms of a lawsuit,” he said. “I do think there is a real issue in terms of a legal right, but we’d rather see if we can get a positive reaction from public officials. … These are new ideas and we have an obligation to air the ideas.”