State’s Motion to Dismiss CCJEF Case Denied

As the Connecticut Mirror recently reported, on December 4, 2013, Hartford Superior Court Judge Kevin G. Dubay denied a motion filed by the State to dismiss Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding, Inc. v. Rell, CV-05-405026-S.  As a result of Judge Dubay’s ruling, the litigation will continue and it at least tentatively appears that Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding, Inc. (“CCJEF”) will be headed to trial beginning July 1, 2014. Please click here to view.

For educators and policy-makers, the CCJEF litigation is certainly worth following.  The lawsuit was first filed in 2005, and attempts to build on the Connecticut Supreme Court’s seminal decisions in Horton v. Meskill, 172 Conn. 615 (1977) and Sheff v. O’Neill, 238 Conn. 1.  In the lawsuit, individual parents and their children, along with CCJEF – a non-profit advocacy group comprised of students, parents, teachers’ unions, community groups, municipalities and  several boards of education – claim that the state has deprived children of their state constitutional right to a suitable and substantially equal educational opportunity because of “inadequate and unequal education inputs.”  A copy of the plaintiffs’ operative complaint is available here.   The CCJEF plaintiffs use the term “inputs” as shorthand for educational programs and offerings such as high-quality preschool, programs and services for at-risk students, adequate number of hours of instruction and rigorous curriculum with a wide breadth of courses.  Correspondingly, the plaintiffs claim that the state’s failure to provide suitable and substantially equal educational opportunities is evidenced by the disparity in educational “outputs” – including standardized test scores and graduation rates -- between students in affluent and lower-income communities.

What the CCJEF plaintiffs want is nothing short of a drastic reconstruction of the State’s educational funding system.  The plaintiffs’ complaint decries the chronic underfunding and stagnant growth of the ECS grant, which, ironically of course, was the State of Connecticut’s legislative fix to the Connecticut Supreme Court’s holding in Horton v. Meskill.    The CCJEF plaintiffs’ contend that the State’s failure to adequately fund its share of Connecticut’s total k-12 educational expenses (according to the plaintiffs, in 2012 the State paid 42% of the total education tab, relative to the 68% paid by local municipalities), is de facto unconstitutional because poor cities and towns “do not have the ability to raise the funds needed to compensate for the monetary shortfalls that result from the State’s arbitrary and inadequate funding system.”

The CCJEF litigation has been protracted.  In 2006 the State moved to strike the lawsuit on the grounds that the State constitution does not confer a right to suitable or minimally adequate educational opportunities.  The State’s motion was originally granted by the trial court, but in 2010 the State Supreme Court reversed and remanded the case back to the trial court for further proceedings.  The Supreme Court’s decision reversing the trial court (available here)  is extremely important and stands with Horton v. Meskill and Sheff v. O’Neill as the major decisions interpreting Connecticut Constitution’s so-called “education clause” (article eighth, § 1, “There shall always be free public elementary and secondary schools in the state.  The general assembly shall implement this principle by appropriate legislation.”).

A plurality of the Court agreed with the CCJEF plaintiffs’ basic premise that the Connecticut Constitution confers Connecticut children with the right not only to a “substantially equal educational opportunity”, as was found in Horton v. Meskill, but also to a minimally adequate educational opportunity.  As the Court found, a minimally constitutionally adequate educational opportunity is one that, at the very least, provides Connecticut public school students with “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,” and one that will prepare students “to progress to institutions of higher education, or to obtain productive employment and otherwise contribute to the state’s economy.”  CCJEF at 314-315.

Nonetheless, at the start of 2013, the State once again tried to throw out the CCJEF litigation, this time through a motion to dismiss based on the argument that the education reform legislation passed by the General Assembly and signed into law by Governor Malloy in 2012, effectively “mooted” the CCJEF plaintiffs’ claims.  (A copy of the State’s Memorandum of Law in support of its motion is available here.  The State’s claim was that the reform legislation “dramatically and comprehensively altered the public education system” and that time was needed to see if the reform legislation will correct, or at least lessen the State’s achievement gap.  As such, the State argued that the CCJEF case must be dismissed, because the new legislation – if it proves successful and fixes the underlying problems – could render the entire lawsuit meaningless.

Judge Dubay essentially rejected this argument, ruling that the State’s argument presented an evidentiary issue that was so closely intertwined with the merits of the case that the most prudent way forward would be for the Court to deny the pending motion to dismiss and to instead defer judgment on the State’s claim until further discovery or a full trial on the merits occurred.  Consequently, the CCJEF plaintiffs’ and the State are free to engage in discovery and prepare for trial.

So what does all of this mean?  Procedurally, it seems likely that before trial both parties will move for summary judgment, each side arguing that based upon the undisputed material facts, judgment should enter on its behalf as a matter of law.  Given that the Connecticut Supreme Court recognized the plaintiffs’ constitutional claim as legally viable, it would seem at first blush that the CCJEF plaintiffs have a strong case for summary judgment.  Furthermore, the educational “outputs” cited by CCJEF in their complaint are not likely to be seriously contested, for it is simply a matter of empirical fact that an achievement gap exists in Connecticut.  Additionally, educational funding is a matter of public record and thus the State’s education-related grants to municipalities are not in question.

Nonetheless, with all of this being said, the CCJEF plaintiffs still have significant factual hurdles that may be extremely difficult to overcome.  One of CCJEF’s fundamental claims, for instance, is that the State’s poorer municipalities “do not have the ability to raise the funds needed to compensate for the monetary shortfalls that result from the State’s arbitrary and inadequate funding system.”  This may seem like a reasonable assertion, but is it in fact true, for while a poorer municipality may have an extremely difficult time raising sufficient funds to provide its students with constitutionally adequate educational opportunities, would it be an impossibility?

Whether a municipality has the resources to provide its school district’s students with constitutionally adequate educational opportunities necessarily turns on the broader question of how “adequacy” is practically defined.   While the Supreme Court gave some measure of guidance when it found that an adequate educational opportunity is one that allows students to fully participate in democratic institutions and to progress to higher education or to obtain productive employment, these remain abstract notions.  The question, then, is how such inherently subjective measures can be objectively quantified.  To this end, is adequacy defined solely by equal, or substantially equal, educational “outputs”?  Would the plaintiffs be required – and, if so, be able – to establish a statistical correlation between educational spending and either voting participation or employment rates?  Would an individual student have the state constitutional right to more educational resources from his or her district if it could be shown that increased services would ensure eventual employment?

The CCJEF trial court will be forced to wrestle with these and other questions as the litigation moves forward, and when the case has been adjudicated and all appeals exhausted, there could well be a landmark ruling, establishing what constitutes a constitutionally adequate educational opportunity.

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