By ARIELLE LEVIN BECKER | Hartfod Courant
March 23, 2010
A divided state Supreme Court on Monday opened the door to significant changes in the way the state funds public education, ruling that the Connecticut Constitution guarantees students not just a public education, but one that can prepare them for employment, higher education and civic responsibilities like voting and jury duty.
The 4-3 ruling did not prescribe changes or even say changes were necessary. In siding with the plaintiffs in an education funding lawsuit, the justices sent the case back to Superior Court for trial. Any changes it could bring are likely years away.
But the ruling established a significant new framework, for the first time explicitly declaring that students have the right to a certain level of education, and defining what it is.
"This is a huge win for Connecticut's schoolchildren," said Dianne Kaplan deVries, project director of the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding, a group of municipal and education organizations that brought the lawsuit along with the parents of schoolchildren in Hartford, New Haven, East Hartford, New London, Plainfield, New Britain, Bridgeport, Danbury and Windham.
The lawsuit, filed in 2005, argued that the state fails to maintain a suitable and substantially equal education system. Instead, in many school districts, the state provides inadequate resources and conditions that set students up for failure, the lawsuit said. It cited a range of statistics — including gaps in test scores, graduation rates, teachers with advanced degrees, the number of books in school libraries — and argued that the way the state funds education fosters educational inequality and inadequacy.
The right to an equal education was established in the 1977 case of Horton v. Meskill. In this case, the plaintiffs claimed another right, to an "adequate" education.
A Superior Court judge struck down most of the plaintiffs' claims in 2007, saying that the state constitution does not require a certain standard of quality for public education and that the court could not address it.
Monday's ruling reversed that ruling.
"We conclude that [the state constitution] entitles Connecticut public school students to an education suitable to give them the opportunity to be responsible citizens able to participate fully in democratic institutions, such as jury service and voting," Justice Flemming L. Norcott wrote in an opinion joined by two other justices. A fourth justice sided with the plaintiffs in a separate opinion.
"A constitutionally adequate education also will leave Connecticut's students prepared to progress to institutions of higher education, or to attain productive employment and otherwise contribute to the state's economy," Norcott wrote.
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Peter T. Zarella called the ruling a "clear violation of the separation of powers" and warned that it would move control of education matters from boards of education to the courts.
"Moreover, it will require the legislature to appropriate at least $2 billion per year in additional funding to ensure that Connecticut schoolchildren will be provided with the resources allegedly required for an adequate education," Zarella wrote.
Lindsey Luebchow, a Yale law student who co-directs the legal advocacy clinic that is handling the case for the plaintiffs without charge, said that the ruling puts Connecticut in the center of a national effort to use state constitutions to close the achievement gap.
The plaintiffs hope to work with the state to make changes, Luebchow said. If not, they will be prepared to take the case to trial and show that Connecticut does not meet the adequacy requirement, she said.
Changing the education funding system, which relies on local property taxes to supplement state funding, will take "an awful lot of political courage," said state Sen. Thomas P. Gaffey, a Meriden Democrat who is co-chairman of the education committee.
Gaffey said the income tax would be a fairer funding method than relying on property taxes. But he said that changing the system would require wide-ranging changes involving economic development, housing policy and reconsidering the merits of having more than 160 "fiefdoms" throughout the state.
What Is Guaranteed?
A key question in the case centered on what is meant by the Connecticut Constitution's guarantee to "free public elementary and secondary schools."
The plaintiffs argued that the wording implied a right to an adequate education. What would be the purpose of a right to education, a representative for the plaintiffs argued before the Supreme Court in 2008, if it did not provide students with the opportunity for employment or higher education?
"However you define it, the fundamental right to education has to have content," argued David Noah, then a Yale law student, one of more than a dozen handling the case under the supervision of Professor Robert Solomon.
The defense offered a different view, arguing that if the authors of the constitutional passage intended it to imply a level of education, they would have said so.
In the state constitution, the passage that immediately follows the public education clause says, "The state shall maintain a system of higher education, including The University of Connecticut, which shall be dedicated to excellence in higher education." The use of such "qualitative language" in that section suggests that the drafters meant to omit such a standard from the section on primary and secondary schools, the defense argued.
During the Supreme Court hearing, Assistant Attorney General Gregory D'Auria, representing the state, argued that the legislature, not the courts, should decide school matters, and that although equality in education is a right, quality is not.
"So as long as it's equally bad, it's OK?" Justice Joette Katz asked.
"If it's equally bad, the democratic process should and will correct that," D'Auria said.
"If it's equally bad," Norcott said, "then there's not much to the fundamental right."
Norcott's ruling drew on previous cases, particularly a series of education cases that included Horton v. Meskill.
The judges' opinions in Horton, Norcott wrote, "support the plaintiffs' position that the fundamental right to an education is not an empty linguistic shell, but has at least some minimal substantive content."
Norcott noted in the ruling that there are limits to the state's responsibilities in education. The state is not required to take measures to maximize the potential of specific students, he wrote, or to counteract every negative factor for which it is not responsible.
But the state must provide students with "an objectively measured 'meaningful opportunity' to receive the benefits of this constitutional right," he wrote.
Joined by Katz and Justice Barry R. Schaller, Norcott wrote that the justices endorsed a view, offered by the New York Court of Appeals, that constitutionally adequate education requires: minimally adequate facilities and classrooms; minimally adequate instruments of learning, such as desks, chairs, pencils and "reasonably current textbooks;" minimally adequate teaching of reasonably up-to-date curriculum in subjects such as reading, writing, math, science and social studies; and enough teachers, adequately trained to teach those subjects.
There are limits to what that might achieve, Norcott wrote, noting that students might struggle because of factors beyond the control of the state, and that the education clause of the constitution will not cure them all.
"A constitutionally adequate education is not necessarily a perfect one," he wrote.
Justice Richard N. Palmer also sided with the plaintiffs but wrote a separate opinion and said the executive and legislative branches are entitled to "considerable deference" in determining what constitutes an adequate education.
In a dissent, Justice Christine S. Vertefeuille wrote that the framers of the education clause seemed to be aware of the option of including a qualitative standard for education, and chose not to do so.
"This deliberate choice weighs very heavily with me, and I therefore would conclude that the text of [the state constitution] reasonably cannot be read as mandating that the instruction in our public schools be 'suitable' or effective for some specific end," she wrote.
Vertefeuille warned that the course taken in Norcott's opinion "can only create unrealistic expectations and divert scarce public resources from supporting schools to defending endless litigation."
Plaintiffs and their supporters celebrated the ruling during a press conference Monday afternoon, calling it a "landmark" decision. Stephen T. Cassano, the coalition's executive director and a former Manchester mayor, called the ruling one of the greatest economic development decisions the court will ever make.
The group included municipal and school officials, teachers' unions, parents, a handful of state lawmakers and the Yale law students.
Bristol Superintendent Philip Streifer said the ruling represented the beginning of a way to overcome failed education funding policies.
"Schools haven't failed — policy has failed," he said in an interview. "This is the first time in my Connecticut education career that I see a reasonable chance of light at the end of the tunnel for education funding — and I've been doing this for 38 years."
State Department of Education spokesman Tom Murphy called the ruling "a major decision" and said it has implications for both finances and the way schools are structured.
The department has proposed a package of high school reforms aimed at increasing standards and graduation rates, as well as adding support services for students and individualized plans for students built around their goals and strengths and weaknesses. Murphy said those proposals, which are now before the legislature, are consistent with the court's definition of adequacy.
"We are looking at how to reduce the gaps, how to improve graduation rates and how to help more students to achieve success," he said.
Gov. M. Jodi Rell said in a written statement that she will maintain current education funding levels — nearly $1.9 billion a year — while the case returns to court.
Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said his office will review the decision.
"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.' The lower court judge who hears the case enabled by this decision faces a similar challenge," Blumenthal said in a written statement. "I am committed to working with the legislature and the govern
or 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."
Courant staff writer Don Stacom contributed to this story.
"This is a huge win for Connecticut's schoolchildren." — Dianne Kaplan deVries, Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding