The courts had already provided an answer to one question: Does New York state apply adequate, equitable funding to ensure that all students have an opportunity to receive the level of public education required by the state constitution?
The answer no, it doesn't was accompanied, in a ruling by the state's highest court last year, with an order that the state fix its funding system by July 30 of this year.
Strictly speaking, the state is under court order to bring up the level of funding for New York City students, on whose behalf the Campaign for Fiscal Equity brought its successful lawsuit. Government officials, quite correctly, view the ruling as an opportunity to apply new equity statewide, bringing clarity and fairness to a funding scheme that has been distorted beyond recognition by geographic and partisan politics.
Which gave rise to the next question: How much more would have to be spent on education to do that?
CFE provided an answer to that one this week: $7 billion more this year if the goal were to be met immediately.
The figure stands as a challenge, but a most helpful one, to the politicians who are wrestling with coming up with an answer of their own.
Joined by the New York State School Boards Association, CFE commissioned a 15-month study that determined, first, what programs were needed to provide the required "sound, basic" education and, second, the cost of those programs.
Taking into account special challenges, such as poverty, as well as geographic cost differences, the researchers broke the statewide $7 billion they arrived at into specific recommendations for different categories of districts: $3.62 billion more for New York City schools; $370 million to be shared by the other four of the Big Five cities, including Yonkers; $480 million spread among high-needs rural districts; $500 million for urban and suburban high-needs districts.
Of the state's 680 districts, the study found, only about one-quarter of them were spending at or above adequate levels.
The "large majority" of the extra money should come from the state, CFE recommended, and the spending should come up to the required amount within three to four years.
A spokesman for Gov. George Pataki had no immediate reaction to the CFE report. A commission empaneled by the governor is expected to recommend how the state should respond to the court order by March 1.
Reaction was mixed in the Legislature, which begins hearings Monday on the education aid Pataki suggested in his budget proposal, aid that falls significantly short of the $2 billion CFE had recommended as a "down payment" toward adequate funding.
Sheldon Silver, the Manhattan Democrat who leads the state Assembly, pledged to "move forward now to meet our legal and moral obligation to our children." And this from Joseph Bruno, leader of the Republican-dominated state Senate: "I need them to tell us, 'Where is the money going to come from?' " Not to minimize the difficulty the financially struggling state faces, but it's the legislators who were elected to answer that question.
The governor and legislators are under no obligation to accept CFE's numbers, or the $6 billion figure cited earlier by the state Education Department. But they would be well-advised to consider them carefully.
This is a first-of-its-kind study for New York. Never before have the requirements and the costs of education been so methodically and objectively dissected. This is no exercise in balancing the political needs of politicians who distribute state revenue; rather, it is a dispassionate exercise in zero-based budgeting based on the educational needs of the state's children.
The court is not likely to settle for a response based on anything less than that kind of analysis. If state leaders come to different financial conclusions, they would have to be based on a similar approach, not the shell game that has passed for an education-funding formula in the past.