Yale Law Clinic Wins Landmark Schools Ruling

Chase Carnot Photo 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.”

Click here to read Norcott’s full decision. Click here for a link to the other opinions released in the case.

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.”

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Christine Stuart help report this story.

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Comments

posted by: Frank Carrano on March 22, 2010  5:45pm

I believe that one of the most important distinctions about this decision is that it doesn’t separate the state into the urban, more needy districts, and those places such as Branford, that are beginning to experience changes in our population. The premise here is that the state has a responsibility under the constitution to provide an adequate educational opportunity for all students, irregardless of where they live. As the governor stated, the statewill have to begin to address this issue, hopefully before litigation is required.
Twenty five years after Horton v Meskill, the landmark funding decision in Ct., the state is once again compelled to do the right thing for the children. One of the outcomes might be a change in funding that will relieve towns of the burden of payment that now relies on local property tax.
I’m proud that the Branford Board of Education has been a part pf the coalition almost since the beginning. I have served on the steering committee for the past 4 years. This is a tremendously significant event, the time has come to finally confront this problem.

posted by: NewHavenerToo on March 22, 2010  8:03pm

I saw the comments today made by Mr. Solomon regarding how students were the best to argue the case for the constitutional rights for students to have a decent education.  My question to you, Mr. Solomon is this.  Do you have the same feelings for workers at the housing authority and their ability to argue on how they can do their jobs better?  If you do, then you need to listen to the employees and how their hands are tied down when it comes to doing their work in an efficient and timely manner.  Listen to the workers concerns.

posted by: Bill on March 23, 2010  8:05am

The Constitution does not guarantee outcome only opportunity. The schools cannot be blamed because students do not take advantage of the opportunity given them. I clearly remember the goof offs in the back up the classroom, not paying attention and making snide remarks during class. In fact they were a detriment to other students learning which makes me think schools would be able to give a better education to those that want to learn if they got rid of the students just taking up space.

posted by: anon on March 23, 2010  8:53am

This story didn’t mention school funding formulas until the 20th paragraph when it should have been in the top five.

It took forever telling us what the case might mean and never really said why it was ever even brought.

posted by: FIX THE SCHOOLS on March 23, 2010  9:18am

The concept is a good one:  Every child deserves an adequate education. 

Beyond that, the theory behind this lawsuit is badly flawed and will result in simply a big money grab. 

The entire premise of the CCJEF lawsuit is that in order to have “adequacy” in education, we need to plow in more money into the same system.  The only people who ought to buy into this nonsense are the unions, the supts. association, the politically driven boards of ed., and parents who have been brainwashed into believing that the more money you shower on their schools, the better it will be for their children.  (And guess who is part of the CJJEF coalition?)

Don’t buy it? Just google “Kansas City Schools” or “Abbott districts” and read about what happens when taxpayers plow money into the school system without changing the basic education model or increasing any of the accountabilities for the people who are employed by the system.

We don’t need more money.  We need to spend the money that we do have a lot more wisely.  And CT. already spends near the top when it comes to k-12 education.  What do we have to show for it?  Decidedly mediocre suburban schools and plenty of abysmal urban schools.

The CCJEF lawsuit would be a travesty if not for some pretty impressive efforts on the part of Hartford and New Haven to turnaround their districts.  Given the change in attitude and approach in these two large districts, thankfully this lawsuit is not the train wreck it once promised to be, but now merely a costly sideshow.  But watch your wallets anyway!

posted by: Katerina Rohner on March 23, 2010  11:52am

Fix the Schools:

A pretty simplistic and dismissive interpretation of this very complicated lawsuit.  Your tired, disingenuous argument about this only being about throwing money at a problem is really a red herring— there is much more to this lawsuit than that.  But let’s face it, more money that is wisely utilized never hurts! 

The plaintiffs have put a great deal more thoughtful and careful analysis and insight into the preparation of this lawsuit and that to which they hope to achieve from it than you give them credit. Your choice of words and phrases to describe the CCJEF lawsuit and its motives are histrionic, contemptuous, and misleading.

Of course, my motive for posting my comment here, besides my belief that it is a good lawsuit, is that my husband and his students are litigating it.  What are yours?

posted by: FIX THE SCHOOLS on March 23, 2010  2:00pm

Katie,

Sorry if I hit a nerve.  Maybe I should have made clear that I didn’t mean to diminish the legal strategy designed by Bob and his team.  As you may know, I think Bob is one of New Haven’s all-time greats.

My skepticism is reserved for the potential remedy which, if played out, would raise the state income tax considerably and invest those dollars into a system which has shown that it responds very poorly to more funding.

CCJEF advocates for more of the standard inputs (technology, small class size, curriculum etc.) But they skirt the largest problems in public education today: The lack of systemic accountability which translates into low expectations for students and uneven quality of school leadership and instruction. The CEU proposals embedded in the argument don’t begin to address these problems.

So just where does it say that money would be spent more wisely?  I haven’t scoured every word of the suit or the opinion.  Bu tI did read the CCJEF position paper and believe it to be based largely on conjecture.  I trust that you have followed it more closely.  So where am I wrong?

Results Based Accountability (RBA)is a process that the CT. legislature has adopted when considering appropriations.  Using that standard, to which results can you point that support CCJEF’s claims?

posted by: Phoebe Solomon on March 23, 2010  8:40pm

Way to go, dad!

posted by: Fassett on March 24, 2010  4:44pm

Bravo, Fix the Schools.  Throwing money at the problem doesn’t fix anything unless the root causes of flavor of the month curriculum, low expectations, and bureaucratic, politicized BOEs.

How does the average Joe ensure that districts will ‘wisely’ use the money?  Who is setting the standard for *wise*?  In Branford, a plethora of new initiatives have been implemented along with all day kindergarten and still our scores are on a trajectory for the basement.

Give parents a choice and see how fast schools make positive changes.