On Thursday, Sept. 28, the Connecticut Supreme Court heard arguments in a landmark education case, Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding v. Rell, (CCJEF). It is no hyperbole to say that CCJEF has the potential to be the Connecticut equivalent of Brown v. Board of Education.
As in Brown, the CCJEF trial court found the disparities in Connecticut’s public education system to be too vast to ignore. In Bridgeport, Hartford, New Haven, and other urban centers across the state, fewer than one in three children is on track to be college and career ready, “nearly 1 in 3 students … can’t read even at basic levels,” and many high-school graduates are “functionally illiterate.”
Yet there is no question Connecticut’s public schools can do better. In fact, Connecticut’s more affluent communities enjoy some of the best public schools in the country, leading to one of the largest achievement gaps in the entire nation. The trial court found that the Connecticut Constitution does not tolerate such injustice, which amounts to discrimination against low-income and minority children.
Whether the Connecticut Supreme Court will agree is another matter. When I represented nine California schoolchildren fighting against a similarly unjust public education system in Vergara v. California, the trial court made comparable findings, declaring that the harms being imposed on poor and minority students across the state “shocks the conscience.” In that case, too, the trial court struck down the status quo as unconstitutional, finding the logic behind the system “unfathomable” and demanding that the California legislature replace it with a more equitable approach.
But the California Supreme Court demurred, refusing to stand up for children’s rights. In a closely divided 4-3 vote, over powerful dissents by Justices Goodwin Liu and Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar, the high court left the dysfunctional system intact, where it continues to impose severe harm on the state’s most vulnerable kids. Justice Liu decried the court’s failure to address “one of the most consequential [issues] to the future of California,” and Justice Cuéllar described the laws at issue as “staggering failures that threaten to turn the right to education for California schoolchildren into an empty promise.” But their poignant words were cold comfort for the children whose futures hung in the balance.
Now it is Connecticut’s turn. The case argued on Thursday will determine whether Connecticut’s education laws and policies—including not only the method the state uses to distribute public funds, but also the state’s teacher evaluation standards and other non-monetary policies—violate students’ educational rights under the state constitution. The case presents another critical test of a state judiciary’s willingness to embrace its legal, civic, and moral obligation to safeguard a child’s educational opportunity, arguably the most important civil right of our time.
I am hopeful that the Connecticut Supreme Court, unlike its California counterpart, will take action to protect the educational rights of Connecticut’s youngest citizens.
Under the current system, inner-city children are forced to attend public schools that the state knows are woefully inadequate, leaving them with little hope of succeeding in school or in life. This is not just a matter of dollars and cents; the state has made irrational and harmful decisions about how to spend education funding in urban centers. For example, the state has imposed a nonsensical moratorium on magnet schools and an effective cap on charter schools, depriving children of the chance to attend terrific public schools that are achieving outstanding results in the very same blighted communities. High-need families literally have to win a lottery to gain access to a decent education — a cruel game of chance with dire consequences. None of us would tolerate these odds for our own kids, and the state high court should declare that the Connecticut Constitution does not tolerate them either.
Nearly 65 years ago, the United States Supreme Court issued its historic decision in Brown, declaring that the “opportunity of an education … is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.” Yet, as the CCJEF trial court found, Connecticut’s public-education system does the opposite, leaving “rich school districts to flourish and poor school districts to flounder.” It is time for the Connecticut Supreme Court to take a stand and help put an end to such gaping inequality, so all children can have a fighting chance to achieve the American dream.
Joshua Lipshutz, partner at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP, is counsel for the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now, which filed an amicus brief in the CCJEF case. He is also counsel for the plaintiffs in Vergara v. California and Martinez v. Malloy, and for Students Matter, the nonprofit sponsor of both lawsuits.