Bob Solomon’s Yale law class pored over a groundbreaking legal decision hot off the presses Monday—one that previous members of the class brought in the first place.
Solomon’s students in the law school’s education clinic aimed to revolutionize how Connecticut’s schools are funded when they brought the lawsuit—CCJEF v. Rell—in 2005. The basic premise was that under the state’s Constitution not only are students entitled to a public education but they are entitled to one that works, one that assures them at minimum an adequate education.
Monday, by a 4-3 vote, the State Supreme Court agreed.
In a major ruling, the Court’s decision assures that the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding (CCJEF), the clients the law school education clinic represents, will be able to move the lawsuit forward. Monday’s decision goes far beyond prior decisions involving claims of inequality in education. For the first time the Connecticut Supreme Court has held that there is a qualitative standard to be met.
In a 55 –page decision, Justice Flemming L. Norcott, writing for the plurality, said: “We conclude that article eighth, section 1, of the Connecticut Constitution guarantees Connecticut’s public schools students educational standards and resources suitable to participate in democratic institutions, and to prepare them to attain productive employment and otherwise to contribute to the state’s economy, or to progress on to higher education. Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the trial court.”
In 2007, Hartford Superior Court Judge Joseph Shortall gutted three of the four counts of the CCJEF complaint, counts that have now been restored. Judge Shortall found the state constitution did not guarantee a minimum standard of quality for public schools and that the legislature was responsible for addressing that question. State Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, whose office represented Gov. M. Jodi Rell and the legislature, maintained in court that it was up to the legislature to fix the education problem, not the courts.
Blumenthal issued a terse statement that drew upon the slim 4-3 margin that showed a divided court. “My office will carefully review this split decision and its impact on state education funding laws. Despite the court’s decision, I am pleased that the ultimate effect is to defer to the elected branches of government in balancing educational costs with the state’s other critical needs.
“Lacking a majority for a clear result, this ruling will require the legislature and the executive branch to closely consider the meaning of ‘minimally adequate education,” one of the phrases used to define the standard. “The lower court judge who hears the case enabled by this decision faces a similar challenge. I am committed to working with the legislature and the governor to ensure that the state complies with the court’s decision. I will continue to defend this case at the lower court in consultation with other state officials.”
“ From the point of view of the CCJEF, its plaintiff parents with kids in various school systems, a number of towns, including Branford, and several cities that are part this lawsuit, “this (decision) asserts once and for all that Connecticut school children have a constitutional right to a quality education,” CCJEF Project Director Dianne Kaplan deVries (pictured) told the CT Mirror.
Later she said that today’s decision was one of the high court’s “most important and fundamental decisions in thirty years,” adding that from her viewpoint the court said that the state’s school children have a constitutional right to an effective and meaningful education.” Her definition differed from Blumenthal’s right to a “minimally adequate education.” And there were other definitions the individual judges cited in their opinions.
Meanwhile, Gov. Rell had this to say about the ruling: ““The opinion sends the case back to superior court for trial. In the meantime, despite our fiscal crisis, I am committed to funding the state’s Education Cost Sharing formula at current levels – nearly $1.9 billion each year to support our public schools.”
It has taken the Supreme Court nearly two years to decide this case, one that was first argued by two Yale Law School students in April, 2008. Neil Weare, then a third-year law school, argued that in some high schools half or more of the students do not graduate, and if they do many cannot read.
His premise, one the court agreed with Monday, was that if students cannot read or write, they cannot get a decent job or fulfill their role as a citizen. A year later, the high court added two additional judges to hear the case, the first hint that it might be considering the major constitutional questions raised in this case.
As five separate decisions came down Monday, the 22 students in Solomon’s Yale law class gathered to read them.
“Our immediate reaction is we were just delighted to see that the court established a standard for a meaningful education in Connecticut,” Solomon (pictured at the top of the story at a Capitol press conference Monday) said in a telephone interview. The constitutional provision giving all Connecticut children the right to a free education, he said, “in our opinion took on a whole new meaning today.” He said that clause now includes “a substantive standard that is going to be critical in moving forward.”
Moving forward means that the students will now be able to gather evidence and testimony for trial, to gather the facts for their case. But it also means that the court’s decision will play out in various ways before the state legislature.
Three justices joined with Norcott to provide the needed four votes. They were Joette Katz, Barry G. Schaller and Richard N. Palmer. Schaller, who has since retired from the bench, and Palmer wrote separate opinions. The Palmer opinion stresses greater legislative latitude in how to achieve an adequate education. In a separate opinion, Schaller provided a road-map for how the legislature might go about defining how best to provide a sound education.
The dissenters, Peter T. Zarella, C. Ian McLachlan and Christine S. Vertefeuille, raised concerns about the role of the judiciary in inserting itself into the process as well as whether courts are well-suited to made difficult policy decisions on what constitutes a suitable education.
While Palmer agreed with the majority, he also said “fashioning remedies for violations of adequacy requirements is more problematic because legislatures may be reluctant to provide sufficient funding and because judicial enforcement of remedies against the legislature presents practical difficulties and raises serious separation–of-powers concerns.” Nonetheless he found the high court was right in backing the need to define an education under the Constitution.
Justices Zarella and McLachlan said this case raised “important philosophical and practical questions regarding the legitimate exercise of judicial power.”
Both justices cited the experience of other states in grappling with education policy. Citing the experience of New Jersey, Justice Zarella observed that “some jurisdictions that have assumed the challenge (of making schools more effective) have become bogged down for years in endless, costly litigation because there are no easily quantifiable judicial standards by which to measure whether children are receiving a suitable education.”
The educational cost sharing formula that Connecticut uses to fund its public schools is broken and legislative efforts to change have failed, many legislators say. The formula has been modified often so that towns and cities are not given adequate funding. As a result in many towns and cities the property tax winds up paying for public schools.
Monday’s ruling paves the way for a trial on these issues and for a major change at some point in the way public schools are funded.
“We believe that all kids can learn and we believe that the state now has a constitutional responsibility to set that as a goal and not just question putting up a school building and putting a teacher in the school building,” Solomon added.
How that constitutional responsibility is met will play out in the coming years.
“We now have a Constitutional standard,” said Solomon. who is a clinical professor of law and oversees this clinic. As for the Education Cost-Sharing Formula (ECS) that determines how the state allocates school funding for cities and towns, he said “in order to provide an adequate education and a meaningful education the formula will have to change.”
Back in Branford, Rep. Lonnie Reed recalled her days as education chairman of the Representative Town Meeting. She pressed the RTM to let Branford join the lawsuit and the RTM agreed.
Today she reflected on the Supreme Court’s landmark decision. “This ruling offers the kind of hope we were looking for when Branford signed up to participate in this lawsuit. Connecticut’s Supreme Court is saying that it is not enough to just provide an education; the state’s obligation is to provide a quality education. Branford students have amazing diversity; our special education needs keep growing; and many private school students are returning to Branford public schools. We must meet their education needs. I am hopeful that today’s decision helps pave the way for Branford to receive its fair share of education funding and that our property taxpayers will finally experience some much needed relief.”
Christine Stuart help report this story.