Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding, Inc., et. Al. vs. Governor M. Jodi Rell et. al.

295 Conn. 240

March 10, 2010

This case was brought on behalf of individual plaintiffs’ children who attend public schools in Bridgeport, Danbury, Windham, Hartford, New Haven, East Hartford, New London, Plainfield, and New Britain. Plaintiffs argue that the state has failed to provide their children with “suitable and substantially equal educational opportunities” under Article 8, §1 of the Constitution of the State of Connecticut. They believe their children have been denied this quality of education because of “inadequate and unequal inputs” to the public school system which include: high quality preschool, appropriate class sizes, programs and services for at-risk students, programs and services for at-risk students, highly qualified administrators and teachers, modern and adequate libraries, modern technology and appropriate instruction, an adequate number of hours of instruction, a rigorous curriculum with a wide breadth of courses, modern and appropriate textbooks, a school environment that is healthy, safe, well maintained and conducive to learning, adequate special needs services, appropriate career and academic counseling, and suitably run extracurricular activities.

Plaintiffs seek a declaratory judgment that asserts they “have a right to receive suitable and substantially equal educational opportunities as a matter of state constitutional law,” and that the current school funding system is unconstitutional because of the state’s failure to provide this right.

The trial court applied the state constitutional analysis of State v. Geisler, 222 Conn. 672, 610 A.2d 1225 (1992), and granted the defendants’ motion to strike for the following reasons: the language of the state constitution did not support the plaintiffs’ claim to a minimum quality of education, the court’s precedent demonstrated its “reluctance to insert itself into educational policy decisions in the absence of clear constitutional or legislative authority to do so,” and finally, those states that have found their constitutions to support the right to a quality education have done so based upon language “substantially different” than the language in the this state’s constitution.

Finally, the court considers the merits of plaintiffs’ claims, utilizing the Geisler factors to determine whether the Constitution of the State of Connecticut affords broader protections than those provided by the federal constitution, under which education is not a fundamental right.

These factors include: persuasive relevant federal precedents, the text of the operative constitutional provisions, historical insights into the intent of the drafters of the constitution, related Connecticut precedents, persuasive precedents of other state courts, and relevant public policy concerns.

In consulting the text of the provision in question, the court determines the language to be ambiguous, including the use of the word “school” in general and the use of “excellence” when discussing the standard of education to which the University of Connecticut should hold itself. When held in comparison to the text of other state constitutions of states who have maintained the right to a standard of education, the court found that those constitutions include more specific language denoting quality than does the Connecticut constitution.

In reviewing Connecticut court precedent, the court reiterated the importance of Horton I’s determination that “the right to education is so basic and fundamental that any infringement of that right must be strictly scrutinized.” In addition, the majority, concurring, and dissenting opinions in Horton I all agreed that Article 8, §1 “necessarily embodies some qualitative component.”

The most recent decision concerning Article 8, §1 is Sheff v. O’Neill which held that the state failed to provide plaintiffs with an equal opportunity to a free public education, because the Hartford public school district “is severely economically disadvantaged, fails to provide equal educational opportunities…and fails to provide a minimally adequate education” for its students. This disparity resulted in a violation of the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights. Especially persuasive to this case is the fact that the Sheff court indicated the court’s “willingness to consider and order judicial remedies” in order to “protect the state constitutional right to an education afforded under Article 8 §1.

In addressing the last Geisler factor, policy concerns, the court found that the arguments fell in favor of the defendants. Defendants pointed out Connecticut students’ higher than average test scores and other indicia of academic success, arguing that “it is unlikely that judicial remedy would remedy imperfections” in the system, and that judicial intervention would actually “stifle educational innovation” by reducing local control.

The court ultimately decided in favor of plaintiffs, holding that Article 8 §1 “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” as well as to move onto higher education or productive employment. Echoing the New York Court of Appeals’ enumeration of the “essential” components to an adequate education, the court highlighted the importance of physical facilities conducive to learning, adequate instrumentalities of learning, adequate teaching, and a sufficient number of properly trained personnel.

The court remanded the case to the trial court to determine whether, in fact, the state has provided its students with an education that provides suitable educational opportunities.

Kathryn Scheinberg (6/10)

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