Connecticut Supreme Court Faces Historic Question:

Do Children Have the Right to an Adequate Education?The most important, far-reaching education case in this state in 30 years awaits a late summer decision by the Connecticut Supreme Court.  The outcome of the CCJEF v. Rell appeal is expected to determine whether Connecticut schoolchildren have the right to an adequate education.  The state argues that schoolchildren do not, that even a poor quality education meets constitutional muster and is an inappropriate concern for the courts.

On November 22, 2005, fifteen students and their families from across the state brought an action in the Hartford Superior Court challenging the constitutionality of Connecticut’s broken education system.  The Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding (CCJEF) helped bring the case to ensure that the interests of all schoolchildren, whether they attend large urban, urban-ring, suburban, or rural school districts, are similarly represented in this action.

The CCJEF v. Rell complaint alleges that the state’s failure to suitably and equitably fund its public schools has irreparably harmed thousands of Connecticut schoolchildren by limiting their future ability to take full advantage of the nation’s democratic processes and institutions, to secure meaningful employment in the competitive high-skills/high-wage global marketplace, and to successfully continue their education beyond high school. The state’s failure to provide plaintiff schoolchildren with opportunities to meet the state’s own learning standards has resulted in a system that fails Connecticut’s students and offends the Connecticut constitution.  The complaint also alleges that the state’s systemic school funding failure disproportionately impacts African-American, Latino, and other minority students, in violation of the Connecticut constitution and federal law.

In a September 2007 pre-trial ruling, Hartford Superior Court Judge Joseph Shortall dismissed three of the four causes of action, ruling that schoolchildren have no right to a “suitable” education under the Connecticut constitution.  This essentially gutted the case of its education adequacy claims, leaving intact only the unchallenged equity claim.

CCJEF immediately appealed.  In light of the profound public policy ramifications of this case for schoolchildren, school boards, and municipalities, the Connecticut Supreme Court agreed to hear the appeal on an expedited basis.  In the ensuing few months, briefs were filed by the parties.  In addition, numerous municipal, business, education, and advocacy organizations filed amicus briefs on behalf of plaintiffs/appellants, arguing that the substantive rights of schoolchildren to a quality education are essential to success in the workplace and higher education and to full participation in a democratic society.  No amicus briefs were filed in support of the state’s position.

Oral arguments took place before the Connecticut Supreme Court on April 22, 2008.  Watch the Connecticut Television Network’s broadcast of those proceedings online

Arguing on behalf of CCJEF and the other plaintiffs before the five-member panel of Supreme Court Justices were second-year law student David Noah and third-year law student Neil Weare, both members of the Yale Law School Education Adequacy Clinic.  The Clinic has served pro bono as CCJEF’s legal counsel since the coalition was founded in 2004.  Currently some fourteen law students work under the supervision of Prof. Robert Solomon and other Yale Law School faculty.

Sitting in the front row of the crowded courtroom was Judge Simon Bernstein, the 95-year-old author of the education clause that now lies at the heart of the CCJEF appeal.  A delegate at the 1965 Connecticut Constitutional Convention, Judge Bernstein had successfully introduced the education clause and championed its ratification.  Now, some 43 years later, he had filed an amicus brief on behalf of CCJEF and traveled to Hartford to lend his support to the Yale Law students and to make certain that his message was heard by the media and legislators:  The intent of the education clause, he noted, was to ensure schoolchildren a good education, not merely an adequate one.  Watch his Connecticut Television Network interview online, together with a legal briefing of the appeal

The Supreme Court decision in this case is expected sometime in late summer or early fall.

This lawsuit has already produced progress.  CCJEF’s filing of the lawsuit and ongoing advocacy efforts directly led to the formation of the Governor’s Commission on Education Finance in 2006 and to the subsequent increases in education funding that were passed by the 2007 Legislature.  Although these are steps in the right direction, CCJEF members believe that providing suitable and substantially equal educational opportunities to the children of Connecticut will require much more — including a comprehensive reform of the fiscal infrastructure for education to put into place a state aid formula that is based on the learning needs of students and the real cost of delivering high-quality education in each community, and which is paid for by a rebalanced/restructured revenue system that lessens the reliance on Grand Lists and property taxes by substantially shifting the funding burden to the state in accordance with its constitutional obligation.