December 5, 2005
SUMMARY OF COMPLAINT IN CCJEF V. RELL
By: Judith Lohman, Chief Analyst
You asked for a summary of the complaint in a school financing lawsuit known as CCJEF v. Rell.
On November 22, 2005, an organization called the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Educational Funding (CCJEF) filed suit in Hartford Superior Court against the state's system of funding education. The plaintiffs include several elementary and high school students and 16 towns, as well as CCJEF.
The lawsuit, CCJEF v. Rell, et al., alleges 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 contends that the state's failure to provide a suitable educational opportunity causes the plaintiffs irreparable harm.
The complaint cites disparities in educational resources and outcomes as evidence of a constitutional violation. It also cites shortcomings in the Education Cost Sharing (ECS) formula, state funding for special education, and other state education grants to justify the request for relief.
The plaintiffs ask the court, among other things, to (1) declare the state's system of funding public education unconstitutional, (2) bar the state from continuing to use it, and (3) appoint a special master to evaluate and make recommendations to the court concerning any revisions to the system the state proposes.
The state must file a response to the complaint by December 20, 2005.
CCJEF filed the lawsuit on behalf of 16 towns and 14 individual students attending school in eight of the towns. The 16 plaintiff towns are (asterisks indicate the towns where plaintiff students attend school):
CONSTITUTIONAL AND STATUTORY BASIS
The complaint invokes the following state constitutional provisions:
● Article Eighth § 1, which requires free public elementary and secondary schools in the state and requires the General Assembly to implement this principle through appropriate legislation.
● Article First, §§ 1 and 20, which establish equal rights and prohibit denial of equal protection of the laws or segregation or discrimination in the exercise or enjoyment of civil or political rights because of religion, race, color, ancestry, national origin, sex, or physical or mental disability.
The complaint also states that the right to a suitable and substantially equal educational opportunity is a “fundamental right.” Finally, it cites a state law that defines the state's educational interests to include that “each child shall have for the period prescribed in the general statutes an equal opportunity to receive a suitable program of educational experiences” (CGS § 10-4a(1)).
SUITABLE EDUCATIONAL OPPORTUNITY
The plaintiffs contend that a “suitable educational opportunity” has three components:
● An educational experience that prepares students to act as responsible citizens and fully participate in democratic institutions.
● An opportunity to complete a high school education that equips them either to advance through higher education or compete equally for productive employment and contribute to the state's economy.
● A suitable opportunity to meet state standards of what students must learn to achieve these goals.
The complaint argues that the state's failure to provide a suitable educational opportunity is demonstrated by wide disparities in educational “inputs” and “outputs” in school districts. It cites particular shortcomings in several of the schools the plaintiffs attend compared to other schools.
According to the complaint, “essential” educational inputs are:
1. high quality preschool;
2. appropriate class size;
3. programs and services for at-risk students;
4. highly qualified teachers and administrators;
5. modern and adequate libraries;
6. modern technology and appropriate instruction;
7. an adequate number of hours of instruction;
8. a rigorous curriculum with a “wide breadth” of courses;
9. modern and appropriate textbooks;
10. a healthy, safe, and well-maintained school environment conducive to learning;
11. adequate services for students with special needs as required by the federal special education law;
12. appropriate career and academic counseling; and
13. an adequate array of suitably run extracurricular activities.
The complaint cites the following educational outputs as valid measures of a suitable educational opportunity:
1. student test scores and skill proficiency levels;
2. grade retention rates;
3. courses completed by graduates (Algebra I, chemistry, and three or more credits in science); and
4. high school graduation rates.
SCHOOL FUNDING SYSTEM
The complaint alleges that the constitutional violations are the result of a flawed school funding system. It cites as evidence that, in 2003, the state did not bear an equal share of public school costs. In that year, state grants totaled only 39% of total public school funding. The municipalities where the plaintiffs live do not have the ability to raise the funds needed to make up for the shortfall in state funding, the complaint says.
Education Cost Sharing (ECS) Formula
Most state education funding is distributed through the ECS formula. The complaint cites several shortcomings in the current ECS.
● There is an arbitrary cap on annual municipal ECS grant increases.
● Grants are based on an arbitrary “foundation amount” that bears no relation to the actual cost of providing a suitable and substantially equal educational opportunity.
● The current level of special education funding, which is largely incorporated into the ECS formula, is unrelated to the actual cost of providing the services.
● The formula's weightings for students' educational and economic need are inadequate and unrelated to the cost of educating students with such needs.
● Use of 1997 Temporary Family Assistance data to determine the weighting for low-income students is outdated and inaccurate.
● The municipal wealth calculation “does not provide an accurate assessment of a municipality's ability to raise funds” for education.
● The state guaranteed wealth level (GWL), which is the level the state equalizes to, has over the years been arbitrarily reduced and frozen to control the state's costs and does not relate to municipalities' actual ability to raise funds for education.
● Roughly 1% of ECS aid is arbitrarily distributed through supplemental aid, regional bonuses, and a population density supplement.
Categorical Education Grants
Although the state funds several “categorical grants” outside ECS to support particular educational programs, such as priority school districts, school readiness, and early reading success, the complaint contends that these provide substantially less funding than ECS and are unrelated to the cost of providing suitable and substantially equal educational opportunities.
The complaint also argues that categorical grants for special education are set at arbitrary levels and are further eroded by being capped at pre-set appropriations levels, regardless of municipal costs or expenditures.
The plaintiffs ask the court to:
1. declare that they have a right, as a matter of state constitutional law, to receive suitable and substantially equal educational educational opportunities;
2. declare that the state's failure to provide these opportunities violates the cited constitutional provisions;
3. declare the state's existing school funding system unconstitutional;
4. permanently enjoin the state from using the current system except to provide an expeditious transition to a constitutional system;
5. order the state to create and maintain a public education system that provides suitable and substantially equal educational opportunities;
6. appoint a special master to hold hearings, make findings, and report recommendations to the court concerning the constitutionality of any new education system the state proposes;
7. award reasonable attorneys' fees to the plaintiffs; and
8. retain jurisdiction for a necessary period.