In a bizarre decision in which the majority based its ruling on a constitutional standard articulated in the past by one of its members–but which that member stated was now being misinterpreted by his colleagues, the Connecticut Supreme Court held last week that plaintiffs had failed to establish that the state was denying students the minimally adequate educational opportunities guaranteed by the state’s constitution. Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding, Inc. v. Rell. Four of the justices joined in the majority decision, while three justices dissented.
The majority decision, authored by Chief Justice Chase Rogers, acknowledged that “the state is straining” to serve many low income students who because of the impact of poverty, “cannot take advantage of the educational opportunities that the state is offering,” and they urged the state to do all that it reasonably can to ensure that “the neediest children have the support that they need to actually take advantage of that opportunity.” Nevertheless, the court held that:
It is not the function of the courts, however, to create educational policy or to attempt by judicial fiat to eliminate all of the societal deficiencies that continue to frustrate the state’s educational efforts.
Eight years ago, in denying the state’s motion to dismiss the complaint and sending this case back for trial, a majority of the justices had held that Article eighth, § 1 of the State Constitution has a qualitative dimension that guarantees all students an adequate education. Three judges stated at that time that the constitution guarantees Connecticut’s public school students “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] to progress to institutions of higher education, or to attain productive employment and otherwise contribute to the state’s economy.” A fourth justice, Richard Palmer, agreed that the case should proceed to trial, but wrote a separate concurring opinion because of his concern that certain language in the plurality opinion could be construed to mean that the constitution guarantees that each student will receive an adequate education. The majority of the court in the current decision held that when a concurring opinion asserting narrower grounds is needed to constitute a majority in a case, that opinion will be deemed the controlling precedent of the case.
Accordingly, the controlling constitutional standard, in this case was that set forth in Justice Palmer’s 2010 concurring opinion. The court majority in 2018 interpreted that opinion to mean that the state must provide sufficient educational opportunities “to enable a student who takes advantage of them to attain a level of knowledge….that will…..enable the student to perform the basic functions of an adult in our society.’ But if the student needs additional supports to overcome “disadvantaging conditions,” that impede her taking advantage of these opportunities, the state has no constitutional responsibility to provide them.
Incredibly, Justice Palmer disagreed strongly with his colleagues’ interpretation and application of his 2010 opinion. In fact, he was the prime author of the dissent (joined by two other justices) in the current case. Justice Palmer specifically stated that the standard he set forth in his 2010 opinion:
requires not only that the state provide the essential components of a minimally adequate education, including facilities, instrumentalities, curricula, and personnel, but also that some reasonable effort be made to ensure that these modalities are designed to address the basic educational needs of at risk learners in under-privileged communities.
The basic building block of the constitutional standard the Court applied in its current decision–i.e. the emphasis on “minimally adequate” facilities, instrumentalities of learning curricula and personnel–was taken from language articulated by the New York Court of Appeals in its 1994 decision in CFE v. State of New York (CFE I). Plaintiffs pointed out, however, that based on the evidence adduced at the CFE trial and the trial judge’s further explication of the constitutional standard, the New York Court of Appeals held in its 2003 decision (CFE II) that the constitutional standard did require additional supports for at risk students; in CFE II, the New York Court of Appeals also explicitly held that the constitutional standard should be interpreted to provide students a “meaningful” educational opportunity. The Connecticut Court rejected this argument. Accordingly, the Connecticut Court has applied an interpretation of the CFE constitutional standard which is inconsistent with the meaning of those words as articulated by the New York Court of Appeals, the body that authored them.
The Court’s specific holding was to affirm the trial court’s determination that Connecticut has provided its students minimally adequate educational resources in accordance with the CFE I standard, but it reversed the lower court’s further determination that the state’s educational policies in regard to the specifics of the school funding formula, its academic content standards and graduation requirements, its teacher evaluation and compensation systems and its programs for special education were all so irrational that they were depriving students in low wealth districts a minimally adequate education. The Supreme Court held that these issues involved matters of educational policy that should be determined by the legislature, not by the court.
Plaintiffs have indicated that they intend to file a motion asking the court to reconsider its ruling. Such motions, however, are rarely granted.