July 3, 2003 - New York Times: Sierra Leone RPCV Michael Rebell wins NY Court of Appeals decision

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By Admin1 (admin) on Sunday, August 10, 2003 - 9:54 am: Edit Post

Sierra Leone RPCV Michael Rebell wins NY Court of Appeals decision

Read and comment on this story from the New York Times about Sierra Leone RPCV Michael Rebell who won a Court of Appeals decision that found New York State's method of financing education shortchanges the city and deprives students of their constitutional right to a decent education. Read the story at:

A Child of the 60's, and a Keeper of the Faith*

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A Child of the 60's, and a Keeper of the Faith


MICHAEL A. REBELL, executive director of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, does not seem the type to do the frug. (That's a dance, for the boogie-challenged among you.)

But Mr. Rebell, a 60-year-old lawyer, is giving an impromptu demonstration, waving his hands high, wiggling in a chair, recalling how he frugged to "Celebration" by Kool and the Gang.

The question is, why?

Mr. Rebell certainly has reason to have a good time. (Can you get that song out of your head now?) He is celebrating the Court of Appeals decision last week that found New York State's method of financing education shortchanges the city and deprives students of their constitutional right to a decent education.

Mr. Rebell's group brought the lawsuit a decade ago. The court ordered the state to figure out what it would cost to offer each of the city's schoolchildren a "sound basic education," and to provide their schools with enough money to do it.

Big doings. Long, hard fight. Getting back to the frug, though. Life, it seems, is full of surprises. Mr. Rebell is regarded as a low-key, serious guy. "I'm deliberate," Mr. Rebell says on a recent morning in his Midtown office. "I'd rather use that word than serious, sensitive to issues of justice and fairness."

All right. No matter. Mr. Rebell is one happy, deliberate camper these days. And lest one get the notion that he is all work and no play, hear him out. Or watch him wiggle. He recalls how he danced so wildly at his older daughter's wedding in February that his younger (teenage) daughter became embarrassed and dragged him from the dance floor.

"I really came alive," he says, beaming. He is wearing a loud red tie printed with faces of smiling children, a gift from students in Boston where he oversaw a special education case.

Michael Rebell joined the Peace Corps after studying government at Harvard and served in Sierra Leone, in West Africa.

Mr. Rebell, who has a round face and thinning gray hair, looks sort of like a scholarly Elmer Fudd. He has written two books about education law.

As he talks about the school financing case, he presses his fingertips together in a steeple at times. He also pauses: "Slow me down," he says apologetically. "As you can see, I've lived with this for a long time." That he has. So let's hear what he has to say.

"The judges really understood what this was all about, defining what adequate education means and taking a stand for whether the education system has an obligation to do more for kids who have less," he says. "It became a racial and socioeconomic issue. And the courts rejected the idea that certain kids, because of their socioeconomic backgrounds, are ineducable. That's a wonderful message. It's the first court in the country that has said so, so clearly, and the first court that has been fully clear on the remedy to bring that about."

Mr. Rebell says he was convinced the courts would see things his way, even last year when a lower appellate court reversed a benchmark 2001 ruling that had been in his group's favor, saying an eighth- or ninth-grade education should suffice as basic. Friends called to console him as if someone had died.

"To be in the business I'm in, you've got to keep the faith and be an optimist," he says. "I felt there was no way they would allow a decision to stand in the 21st century that allows New York State kids nothing more than 19th-century reading, writing and arithmetic."

Mr. Rebell, who admits he was initially reluctant to sue, did so, however, at the urging of Robert Jackson, a City Council member who was then president of Community School Board 6 in Washington Heights. Mr. Rebell was the board's lawyer. Class sizes were soaring. Teachers were being laid off. But Mr. Rebell says he worried that he was running the risk of being punished by the court for bringing a frivolous suit. A group of poor school districts on Long Island had lost in its effort to sue over financing. But he filed the suit in 1993. He argued that the courts should focus on getting children a decent education, not emphasizing the complexities of property taxes and technicalities of school aid financing.

Mr. Rebell's life could have turned out quite differently. He had considered becoming a scholar of Chinese studies. The son of a prosperous accountant and a homemaker, he grew up in Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn. He calls himself "a child of the 60's," who was inspired by John F. Kennedy's call to public service. He joined the Peace Corps after studying government at Harvard and served in Sierra Leone, in West Africa. His interest in Chinese studies waned in his two years there, but he clung to his belief that he owed a debt to society. He went on to study law at Yale.

I ALWAYS was oriented to trying to understand the needs of people who society has discarded and not treated fairly," he says.

There is another way to think of Mr. Rebell, a father of three who lives on the Upper West Side with his second wife, Sharon, a psychotherapist.

The tortoise.

That's a description Mr. Rebell can live with, though he is quick to add that he runs, bikes and hikes. He says the staff at Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, which provided $17 million worth of work on the case, presented him at a victory dinner with a T-shirt of a tortoise.

"Slow and steady," he says, nodding his head.

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