Earlier this month, trial court proceedings started in the landmark case, Connecticut Coalition on Justice in Education Funding v. Rell.  The plaintiffs, several students in various towns and a coalition of towns, filed suit in 2005, claiming that the current system of funding education in Connecticut violates the Connecticut Constitution because students in some school districts are not receiving a suitable educational opportunity.  In 2007, the trial court granted the State’s motion to strike several counts in plaintiffs’ complaint, holding that there is no constitutional right under article eighth, section 1 of the Connecticut Constitution to any particular quality of education, and finding that this issue is a non-justiciable political controversy.  In 2010, however, a plurality of the Connecticut Supreme Court reversed, paving the way for the trial that is now underway, some ten years after the case was first brought.

As this next phase of the CCJEF case gets underway, an overview and brief commentary may be helpful.  This case presents a difficult question as to the role of the judiciary versus the role of the legislature in allocating resources to support public education in grades kindergarten through twelve.  A key issue going forward is whether the General Assembly or the judiciary is responsible in the first instance to address legitimate concerns over the way in which Connecticut funds education.  This case is hugely important, but not because we can expect a quick fix.  Indeed, any remedial action through the courts is likely years or even decades away.  Rather, the court proceedings are important both now and for the future because they will produce a body of information concerning the quality of education in various Connecticut towns that should invite the General Assembly to take action.  And if the General Assembly does not act, the Connecticut Supreme Courts will ultimately decide, based on the evidence adduced at trial, how to address the very real issues plaintiffs have raised concerning the quality of education in Connecticut.

This case illustrates the difficulty that the courts have in addressing quality of education issues.  For example, the court issued its decision in Sheff v. Meskill in 1996, and we struggle to implement that ruling twenty years later, even though Justice Peters’ opinion states, “[e]very passing day denies these children their constitutional right to a substantially equal educational opportunity,” and the court urged “the legislature and the executive branch to put the search for appropriate remedial measures at the top of their respective agendas.”  Here, the trial court ruled that claims as to the “adequacy” of education are not justiciable, and it took a plurality of the Connecticut Supreme Court almost two years after oral argument to reverse that decision, suggesting lengthy deliberations.  Moreover, even after that lengthy delay, the court was unable to issue a majority opinion.

The trial court has a daunting challenge as it receives a huge amount of evidence and deliberates, because the Connecticut Supreme Court did not provide a clear standard on which the trial court should rule.  Rather, in finding that the dispute is justiciable, the justices wrote plurality, concurring and dissenting opinions that announced three different standards for reviewing the adequacy claims made by plaintiffs, and one for rejecting the claims altogether.

Justice Norcott wrote the plurality opinion, in which only two other justices (Katz, Schaller) joined.  In that opinion, Justice Norcott held that the quality of educational opportunities presents a justiciable issue:

Having determined that the plaintiffs’ claims are justiciable because they do not present a political question, we conclude that article eighth, § 1, of the Connecticut constitution guarantees Connecticut’s public school students educational standards and resources suitable to participate in democratic institutions, and to prepare them to attain productive employment and otherwise to contribute to the state’s economy, or to progress on to higher education. Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the trial court.

This ruling presents standards that, of course, are not self-defining.  Justice Schaller offered his views on that subject in a lengthy concurring opinion.

Justice Palmer concurred separately, with the result that a majority of the Court held that the complaint is justiciable.  However, Justice Palmer’s separate concurring opinion sets forth a significantly-different standard.  In his view, the court should exercise restraint in such matters, and explained that he would find the system of educational funding in violation of the Connecticut Constitution under only limited circumstances:

I am unable to join the plurality opinion, however, primarily because I take a different view from the plurality with respect to the scope of the right guaranteed by article eighth, § 1. In particular, I believe that the executive and legislative branches are entitled to considerable deference with respect to the determination of what it means, in practice, to provide for a minimally adequate, free public education. Thus, it is the prerogative of the legislature to determine, within reasonable limits, what a minimally adequate education entails. Consequently, in my view, the plaintiffs will not be able to prevail on their claims unless they are able to establish that what the state has done to discharge its obligations under article eighth, § 1, is so lacking as to be unreasonable by any fair or objective standard.  As I explain more fully hereinafter, any other approach, including the approach that the plurality advocates, would permit the judicial branch to second-guess the reasoned judgment of the legislative and executive branches with respect to the education policy of this state, thereby depriving those branches of their ‘‘recognized significant discretion in matters of public elementary and secondary education.’’ Sheff v. O’Neill, 238 Conn. 1, 37, 678 A.2d 1267 (1996).

Justice Vertefeuille also found the dispute to be justiciable, but she dissented from the plurality ruling because she disagrees with the plurality’s interpretation of article  eighth, § 1:

Instead, I would conclude that the constitutional requirement that ‘‘[t]here shall always be free public elementary and secondary schools in the state’’; Conn. Const., art. VIII, § 1; was intended to ensure the perpetuation of Connecticut’s statewide system of free public schools, and was not intended to guarantee a ‘‘suitable’’ education as interpreted by the majority. I therefore would conclude that the trial court properly granted the defendants’ motion to strike counts one, two and four of the plaintiffs’ complaint.

Finally, Justice Zarella, joined by Justice McLachlan, dissented, stating “Thus, by extending judicial authority into areas expressly reserved to the legislature, this court’s ruling in the present case sets a dangerous precedent that will create a quagmire of uncertainty with respect to future controversies regarding the boundaries of judicial and legislative power in matters concerning education.”

Notwithstanding the court’s difficulty in finding agreement on the role of the courts and the standard to apply, this case is significant for the future of education in Connecticut.  While we may not expect the courts to issue a clear and final ruling for years, this litigation increases public awareness of the challenges we face in assuring that all children receive a suitable educational opportunity.  We may hope that this litigation will serve as an important invitation to the General Assembly to make meaningful changes in how Connecticut funds education and to assure that we meet the state constitutional mandate to provide all students a substantially equal educational opportunity.

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Photo of Thomas B. Mooney Thomas B. Mooney

Tom is chair emeritus of the School Law Practice Group and is active in all areas of school law, including labor negotiations for certified and non-certified staff, teacher tenure proceedings, grievance arbitration, freedom of information hearings, student disciplinary matters, special education disputes and…

Tom is chair emeritus of the School Law Practice Group and is active in all areas of school law, including labor negotiations for certified and non-certified staff, teacher tenure proceedings, grievance arbitration, freedom of information hearings, student disciplinary matters, special education disputes and all other legal proceedings involving boards of education. Tom is the author of A Practical Guide to Connecticut School Law (9th Edition, 2018), a comprehensive treatise on Connecticut school law, and two columns, “See You in Court!,” which appears in the CABE Journal, and “Legal Mailbag,” which appears in the CAS Bulletin.