Connecticut Supreme Court Holds Public School System Is Constitutionally Adequate
On January 17, 2018, the Connecticut Supreme Court held the state's public schools provide constitutionally adequate educational opportunities to students. In Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding, Inc., et al. v. Rell, et al., (SC 19768), the court concluded "plaintiffs have failed to establish that the defendants have violated article eight, §1, and article one, §§1 and 20, by failing to provide a minimally adequate and substantially equal educational opportunity to all students in the state." In other words, plaintiffs failed to prove a violation of the Connecticut Constitution's Education Clause (article eight, §1) or its Equal Protection Clause (article one, §20).
Plaintiffs argued that Connecticut's public schools were constitutionally inadequate because districts with "high concentrations of poorly performing students" lacked teachers, technology, instructional resources, preschool and counselors. The "large numbers of students in poverty and students in high needs districts [who] are not achieving, or even approaching, appropriate educational outcomes" were proof of a systemic breakdown, they claimed. Plaintiffs contended that the state's school system could not pass constitutional muster unless the basic educational needs of at-risk students in underprivileged communities were being met.
The Supreme Court took a more restrictive view, explaining "the function of the courts is to determine whether the narrow and specific criteria for a minimally adequate education system under our state constitution have been satisfied." Acknowledging that "courts have little institutional competence to make the determination as to which disadvantaging conditions are the most serious or how and to what extent those conditions should be alleviated by the state," the court declined plaintiffs' invitation to evaluate interventions specific to at-risk students. Instead, the court adopted the adequacy criteria articulated in Campaign for Fiscal Equity, Inc. v. State (Campaign I), 86 N.Y.2d 307 (1995). Under Campaign I, a school system is constitutional if it provides: (1) minimally adequate physical facilities and classrooms which provide enough light, space, heat and air to permit children to learn; (2) minimally adequate instrumentalities of learning such as desks, chairs, pencils and reasonably current textbooks; (3) minimally adequate teaching of reasonably up-to-date basic curricula such as reading, writing, mathematics, science and social studies; and (4) sufficient personnel adequately trained to teach those subject areas. The ultimate question presented, therefore, was "whether the state's offerings are sufficient to enable a student who takes advantage of them to become a functional member of society."
Notably, the Supreme Court rejected the trial court's conclusion that a state education system satisfying Campaign I could still be constitutionally deficient if it did not "deploy in its schools resources and standards that are rationally, substantially and verifiably connected to teaching children." This additional step was a bridge too far. "Rather, if the state is providing a minimally adequate educational opportunity to all of its . . . students under the Campaign I criteria, the fact that some educational policies are programs are not, in the trial court's personal view, 'rationally, substantially and verifiably connected to teaching children' is constitutionally irrelevant." By applying this standard, "not only did the trial court fail to defer to the legislature, it also usurped the legislative responsibility to determine how additional funding, beyond the constitutionally required minimum, should be allocated and how to craft educational policies that, in its view, best balance the wide variety of interests at issue. This action was in clear violation of separation of powers principles."
Applying Campaign I, the Supreme Court concluded that plaintiffs failed to prove Connecticut's schools were inadequate. For example, evidence of overcrowded classrooms in two districts was presented, but the court reasoned that "we are unable to say that classes of that size render a school inadequate as a matter of law. Indeed, the trial court expressly found that the scientific research on the impact of class size on education outcomes is inconclusive." Similarly, in response to evidence of long-term substitutes being hired in lieu of full-time teachers, the court opined "that fact does not compel the conclusion that the overall level of teaching in the district or school is inadequate." Turning to at-risk students, the court found there was clear evidence of state and federal programs designed to meet their needs, including free meals, parent outreach, programs for homeless and pregnant students and mental health services.
The court rejected plaintiffs' attempt to use student performance as evidence of inadequacy because "student achievement may be affected by . . . many factors outside the state's control, including perhaps most particularly, the disadvantaging characteristics of poverty." To hold otherwise would convert the constitutional mandate "into a mandate that the state ensure that all school age children have sufficiently good parenting, financial resources, housing, nutrition, health care, clothes and other social goods to enable them to take advantage of the educational opportunity that the state is offering."
Finally, the Supreme Court rejected plaintiffs' equal protection claim, noting the state had funneled over $400 million to the 30 lowest performing schools, $13 million to 14 "failing" schools and $4 million per year in school improvement grants to roughly 30 high-need schools, in addition to administering existing state and federal programs for at-risk students. These efforts demonstrated that "the state's current education spending disparity favors the impoverished districts with which the plaintiffs are most concerned." The court declined to invalidate the funding scheme because wealthier districts were able to spend more per student using property tax funds. Rather, the court concluded that "plaintiffs have not shown that this [achievement] gap is the result of the state's unlawful discrimination against poor and needy students in its provision of educational resources as opposed to the complex web of disadvantaging societal conditions over which the schools have no control."
Accordingly, the Connecticut Supreme Court affirmed in part and reversed in part the trial court's holding.
Stinson Leonard Street attorneys have extensive experience successfully representing states and state agencies in school funding lawsuits. Please contact John Munich or Jamie Boyer for additional information.