Location:
EDUCATION - FINANCE;
Scope:
Court Cases; Background;

OLR Research Report


December 28, 2010

 

2010-R-0527

OLR BACKGROUNDER: CCJEF V. RELL

By: James Orlando, Associate Analyst

This report summarizes the Connecticut Supreme Court's decision in CCJEF v. Rell.

SUMMARY

On November 22, 2005, the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding (CCJEF) filed suit in Hartford Superior Court against the state's education funding system. In addition to CCJEF, the plaintiffs included several elementary and high school students and 16 towns. The defendants included Governor Rell and other state officials. The lawsuit alleged that “by failing to maintain an education system that provides children with suitable and substantially equal opportunities, the state is violating their constitutional rights” and has fostered an “educational underclass.” It also contended that the state's failure to provide a suitable educational opportunity caused the plaintiffs irreparable harm.

The plaintiffs alleged that the state's failure to provide suitable and substantially equal educational opportunities could be demonstrated through both educational inputs (for example, class sizes, appropriate textbooks and other materials, and adequate services for students with special needs) and outputs (for example, mastery test scores and graduation rates). The complaint also cited shortcomings in the

Education Cost Sharing (ECS) formula, state funding for special education, and other state education grants to justify the request for relief. For a full summary of the complaint, see OLR Report 2005-R-0887.

Among other types of relief, the plaintiffs sought a judgment (1) declaring that the state constitution guarantees students the right to suitable and substantially equal educational opportunities and (2) ordering the state to create a public education system that would provide such opportunities to students.

In 2007, the Superior Court granted the defendants' motion to strike several of the plaintiffs' claims, concluding that there is no “constitutional right to 'suitable' educational opportunities.”

The plaintiffs appealed to the state Supreme Court, which issued its ruling in March 2010 in CCJEF v. Rell, 295 Conn. 240 (2010). The Supreme Court reversed the lower court, ruling that the fundamental right to public education in the Connecticut Constitution (article eighth, 1) guarantees students the right to a minimum qualitative standard which must provide students with suitable educational opportunities. The Supreme Court returned the case to the lower court for further proceedings to determine whether the state has met that standard and, if not, what remedies must follow.

While a majority of justices agreed that the Superior Court must be reversed, there was no majority opinion. Justice Norcott wrote the plurality opinion, joined by Justices Katz and Schaller. The plurality opinion concluded that article eighth, 1 “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” (CCJEF v. Rell, 295 Conn. at 244-45).

Justice Palmer wrote a concurrence, stressing that the legislature is entitled to considerable deference in its implementation of Connecticut's education system and that article eighth, 1 requires the state only to maintain a minimally adequate education system. Justice Schaller wrote a separate concurrence, discussing the constitutional principles that underlie the judgment and methods to measure the adequacy of the state's education system.

Justice Vertefeuille wrote a dissenting opinion, concluding that article eighth, 1 was intended only to ensure the continuation of Connecticut's public school system. Justice Zarella also wrote a dissenting opinion, joined by Justice McLachlan, concluding that the court lacked jurisdiction over the case.

The case is currently scheduled for trial at the Superior Court in 2014.

This report summarizes the plurality's opinion. It also briefly summarizes the concurring and dissenting opinions, focusing on how they differ from the plurality opinion. Please note that this report does not address all arguments or legal precedents considered by the various opinions of the court. The full opinions are available on the Judicial Branch website.

PLURALITY OPINION

Justiciability

The plurality first considered whether the court had jurisdiction to decide the case. Article eighth, 1 of the Connecticut Constitution provides that “[t]here shall always be free public elementary and secondary schools in the state. The general assembly shall implement this principle by appropriate legislation.” The defendants argued that this constitutional provision commits issues of educational adequacy to the legislative branch, and that the case was thus a nonjusticiable political question. Relying on Sheff v. O'Neill, 238 Conn. 1 (1996) and other cases, the plurality concluded that the courts had jurisdiction to determine whether the legislature had fulfilled its constitutional obligation to pass appropriate legislation to provide a public education system.

Merits

The plurality opinion then addressed the plaintiffs' claim that the state constitution's fundamental right to education in article eighth, 1 “encompasses a minimum qualitative standard that guarantees students the right to 'suitable educational opportunities.' ” The plurality concluded that the state constitutional right to education:

embodies a substantive component requiring that the public schools provide their 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 to prepare them to progress to institutions of higher education, or to attain productive employment and otherwise to contribute to the state's economy (CCJEF v. Rell, 295 Conn. at 270).

To reach this conclusion, the court considered whether the state constitution affords broader protection than the federal constitution (which does not make education a fundamental right). The court used the framework it previously adopted in State v. Geisler, 222 Conn. 672 (1992). The Geisler case used six factors to analyze a constitutional provision. Each factor is listed below, followed by a summary of the court's finding on each one.

1. The text of the constitutional provision. The plurality determined that the text of article eighth, 1 was ambiguous as to the qualitative content of the right to education, and therefore it was necessary to consider the other Geisler factors.

2. Related Connecticut precedents. The plurality determined that this case was one of first impression and not controlled by prior state precedent, but that the plaintiffs' claims were consistent with prior Connecticut cases, such as Sheff and Horton v. Meskill, 172 Conn. 615 (1977) (Horton I). In Horton I, the court concluded that the state's education finance system, which relied heavily on local property taxes without considering disparities in ability to pay or equalizing state funding, was not appropriate implementing legislation under article eighth, 1. The CCJEF plurality concluded that “the various opinions in Horton I support the plaintiffs' position that the fundamental right to an education is not an empty linguistic shell, but has at least some minimal substantive content” (CCJEF v. Rell, 295 Conn. at 284).

The plurality also found that Sheff supported the plaintiffs' argument. The Sheff court held that under article eighth, 1, as informed by the equal protection guarantee in article first, 20, the state had an affirmative obligation to remedy segregation in public schools, even if the state had not created the segregation. The Sheff court further held that the state failed to fulfill its obligation to provide all students with substantially equal educational opportunities. The CCJEF plurality concluded that Sheff “indicates that this court is willing to protect the state constitutional right to an education” (CCJEF v. Rell, 295 Conn. at 288).

The plurality also discussed other Connecticut Supreme Court cases which “indicate that the state's responsibilities under article eighth, 1, are not unbounded, and do not require the state to take measures that will maximize the potential of specific students or mitigate the effect of every possible negative external factor for which the state bears no direct responsibility” (CCJEF v. Rell, 295 Conn. at 290) (discussing Savage v. Aronson, 214 Conn. 256 (1990) and Broadley v. Board of Education, 229 Conn. 1 (1994)).

3. Constitutional history. After discussing the history of Connecticut's commitment to free public education and quoting from Simon J. Bernstein, the principal author and proponent of article eighth, 1, the plurality concluded that:

Although the proponents of article eighth, 1, did not articulate a substantive standard, they emphasized the historical importance of education to Connecticut in the context of its role in fostering meaningful civic participation in a representative democracy. Thus, in the absence of any contravening evidence in the historical record supporting the proposition that the education provision only is hortatory and lacks real substance, this historical factor informs our construction of article eighth, 1 (CCJEF v. Rell, 295 Conn. at 296).

4. Federal precedent. The plurality concluded that because there was no federal constitutional provision similar to article eighth, 1, federal precedent was generally irrelevant to its analysis.

5. Other states' decisions. The plurality analyzed several similar cases from other states (including New Hampshire, New York, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Washington), focusing on decisions from states with constitutional education clauses that “like article eighth, 1, do not use qualitative language to describe their respective rights to education” (CCJEF v. Rell, 295 Conn. at 299-300). The plurality found that:

[t]hese cases are illustrative, as our research has revealed that those state courts that have reached the merits of the issue overwhelmingly have held that there is a floor with respect to the adequacy of the education provided pursuant to their states' education clauses; that education must be in some way ''minimally adequate'' or ''soundly basic.'' Furthermore, many of these decisions have articulated comprehensive standards that have defined the components of a constitutionally adequate education . . . (id. at 309-10).

6. Economic and Sociological Policy Considerations. The plurality cited its own precedents, including Sheff, and enumerated several ways in which a sound public education system is necessary not only for students but for the economic and civic well-being of the state as a whole. However, the plurality noted that prudential and functional considerations:

involve the potential for judicial overmanagement of the state's education system and interference with the prerogatives of the political branches of government, [and] are in our view better addressed in consideration of potential remedies for any constitutional violations that may be found at a subsequent trial on the merits . . . (CCJEF v. Rell, 295 Conn. at 313-14).

Conclusion

After discussing all of the Geisler factors, the plurality concluded that article eighth, 1 of Connecticut's constitution “entitles Connecticut public school students to an education suitable to give them the opportunity to be responsible citizens able to participate fully in democratic institutions . . . [and] prepared to progress to institutions of higher education, or to attain productive employment and otherwise contribute to the state's economy” (CCJEF v. Rell, 295 Conn. at 314). The plurality added that the essential components of a constitutionally adequate education include (1) minimally adequate (a) physical facilities and classrooms, (b) instrumentalities of learning, and (c) teaching of reasonably up-to-date basic curricula and (2) sufficient and adequately trained teaching personnel (id. at 316) (citation omitted).

The court returned the case to the trial court to determine “whether the state's educational resources and standards have in fact provided the public school students in this case with constitutionally suitable educational opportunities” (CCJEF v. Rell, 295 Conn. at 320).

JUSTICE PALMER'S CONCURRENCE

Justice Palmer concurred with the judgment, but wrote separately to express “a different view from the plurality with respect to the scope of the right guaranteed by article eighth, 1.” In Justice Palmer's view, due to the “considerable deference” that must be afforded the executive and legislative branches in determining the contours of a minimally adequate public education, the plaintiffs could only prevail if they could prove the state's actions were “so lacking as to be unreasonable by any fair or objective standard” (CCJEF v. Rell, 295 Conn. at 321).

He agreed with the plurality that the constitution requires students to have access to minimally adequate physical facilities, instrumentalities of learning, and teaching of reasonably up-to-date curricula, as well as trained teachers. However, he noted in a footnote that because educational inputs, not outputs, must provide the primary basis for determining whether the state has complied with article eighth, 1, “I am unable to agree with the plurality's assertion that '[a] constitutionally adequate education . . . will leave Connecticut's students prepared to progress to institutions of higher education, or to attain productive employment and otherwise contribute to the state's economy' ” (CCJEF v. Rell, 295 Conn. at 345 n. 19).

JUSTICE SCHALLER'S CONCURRENCE

Justice Schaller, also concurring in the judgment, wrote separately:

to clarify and, where necessary, expand on the constitutional principles that compel [the judgment] and . . . to express some important prudential concerns regarding the future progress of this action . . . pertain[ing] to the standard that the trial court should apply . . . to determine whether the plaintiffs . . . will have succeeded in establishing a violation of the constitutional right as we define it today, and to the authority of the trial court to order appropriate remedies in the event that a violation has occurred (CCJEF v. Rell, 295 Conn. at 347).

Justice Schaller described various models that the trial court could

use to measure the adequacy of the state's education system. He stressed that “the state is bound to provide an education that is adequate given the circumstances of the children to whom it must be provided. . . an offering that would suffice in one district of the state may not suffice in another” (CCJEF v. Rell, 295 Conn. at 380). He also noted that if the trial court determines that a violation has occurred, the appropriate response may be to assign the legislature or parties the opportunity to fashion a remedy, at least initially.

JUSTICE VERTEFEUILLE'S DISSENT

In her dissent, Justice Vertefeuille wrote that the education clause in the state constitution “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” (CCJEF v. Rell, 295 Conn. at 384). She concludes that none of the Geisler factors support the plurality's conclusion on the merits.

JUSTICE ZARELLA'S DISSENT

Justice Zarella also wrote a dissenting opinion, joined by Justice McLachlan. Justice Zarella cautioned that:

By extending judicial authority into areas expressly reserved to the legislature, this court's ruling . . . 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 (CCJEF v. Rell, 295 Conn. at 400).

Justice Zarella concluded that the case presented a nonjusticiable political question.

JO:df