Connecticut Coalition for Justice v. Rell

Decision Date30 March 2010
Docket NumberNo. 18032.,18032.
Citation990 A.2d 206,295 Conn. 240
CourtConnecticut Supreme Court
PartiesCONNECTICUT COALITION FOR JUSTICE IN EDUCATION FUNDING, INC., et al. v. Governor M. Jodi RELL et al.

Neil Weare and David Noah, certified legal interns, with whom were Robert A. Solomon and Robin Golden, for the appellants (plaintiffs).

Gregory T. D'Auria, associate attorney general, with whom were Clare E. Kindall and Robert J. Deichert, assistant attorneys general, and, on the brief, Richard Blumenthal, attorney general, for the appellees (defendants).

Erika L. Amarante, New Haven and Michael A. Rebell, New York, NY, filed a brief for the Campaign for Educational Equity et al. as amici curiae.

Steven D. Ecker, Hartford, filed a brief for the Workforce Alliance et al. as amici curiae.

Robert M. DeCrescenzo, Hartford, filed a brief for the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities et al. as amici curiae.

Linda L. Morkan, Ndidi N. Moses and Nicole A. Bernabo, Hartford, filed a brief for One Connecticut as amicus curiae.

John C. Brittain, Washington, DC, Jennifer Mullen St. Hilaire, Hartford and Emily A. Gianquinto filed a brief for the Connecticut State Conference NAACP et al. as amici curiae.

David N. Rosen filed a brief for Christopher Collier and Simon J. Bernstein as amici curiae.

NORCOTT, KATZ, PALMER, VERTEFEUILLE, ZARELLA, SCHALLER and McLACHLAN, Js.*

NORCOTT, J.

It is by now well established that, under the constitution of Connecticut, the state must "`provide a substantially equal educational opportunity to its youth in its free public elementary and secondary schools'"; Horton v. Meskill, 172 Conn. 615, 649, 376 A.2d 359 (1977) (Horton I); and that this court has a role in ensuring that our state's public school students receive that fundamental guarantee. See Sheff v. O'Neill, 238 Conn. 1, 45-46, 678 A.2d 1267 (1996). In this public interest appeal, we consider whether article eighth, § 1, of the constitution of Connecticut1 also guarantees students in our state's public schools the right to a particular minimum quality of education, namely, suitable educational opportunities. The plaintiffs, the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding, Inc.,2 and numerous parents and their children, who are enrolled in public schools across the state,3 appeal, upon a grant of certification by the Chief Justice pursuant to General Statutes § 52-265a,4 from the judgment of the trial court granting the motion of the defendants, various state officials and members of the state board of education,5 to strike counts one, two and four of the plaintiffs' amended complaint.6 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.

The record reveals the following relevant facts, as alleged in the operative complaint and construed in the manner most favorable to the pleader; see, e.g., Violano v. Fernandez, 280 Conn. 310, 317-18, 907 A.2d 1188 (2006); and procedural history. The individual plaintiffs' children attend public schools in Bridgeport, Danbury, Windham, Hartford, New Haven, East Hartford, New London, Plainfield and New Britain. The plaintiffs allege that the state has failed to provide their children with "suitable and substantially equal educational opportunities" because of inadequate and unequal inputs, which "are essential components of a suitable educational opportunity," namely: (1) high quality preschool; (2) appropriate class sizes; (3) programs and services for at-risk students; (4) highly qualified administrators and teachers; (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 school environment that is healthy, safe, well maintained and conducive to learning; (11) adequate special needs services pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq.; (12) appropriate career and academic counseling; and (13) suitably run extracurricular activities. These inputs have been recognized by the state board of education in various "position statements" as "necessary components of a suitable educational opportunity."

The availability and quality of these essential inputs vary significantly in schools across the state, as demonstrated by statistics from the 2003-2004 school year cited by the plaintiffs. For example, at the Lincoln Elementary School (Lincoln) in New Britain, 50 percent of the kindergarten students attended preschool, nursery school or Head Start, as compared to 76 percent statewide. None of the computers at Lincoln are high or moderate powered, in comparison to the statewide average of 63 percent. Lincoln's library has ninety non-print materials, as compared to an average of 395 elsewhere in the state. At Lincoln, 68 percent of the teachers have a master's degree, in comparison to 80 percent statewide. Finally, although numerous students at Lincoln perform poorly in mathematics, the school does not offer pull-out remedial instruction or in-class tutorials in that subject.7

At the Roosevelt School in Bridgeport, which includes grades kindergarten through eight, 61 percent of the kindergarten students have attended preschool or Head Start, as compared with 76 percent statewide. The average size for a kindergarten class is twenty-six students there, as compared with nineteen statewide. For a seventh grade class, the average size is thirty students, as compared with twenty-two statewide. The library has nine print volumes per student, in comparison to twenty volumes per student statewide, and thirty-seven nonprint materials, as compared to 324 statewide. The library does not subscribe to any periodicals, while the average kindergarten through eighth grade school subscribes to fifteen periodicals. Roosevelt School does not offer any computer education instruction, while other schools statewide provide an average of eighteen hours per year. Roosevelt School also does not provide any world language instruction, while 66 percent of the kindergarten through eighth grade schools statewide do provide such instruction. Finally, each counselor at the Roosevelt School works with 438 students, in comparison to the statewide average of 265.

At the high school level, for example, Plainfield High School does not offer pull-out remedial instruction, in-class tutorials, after school programs, or summer school in mathematics or language arts, despite the fact that numerous students performed poorly in those subjects. Students at Plainfield High School took advanced placement tests in five courses, in comparison to the statewide average of nearly ten such courses. Finally, several dedicated specialty areas of Plainfield High School are in poor physical condition, including the all-purpose room, cafeteria, outdoor athletic facilities, educational technology and office/administrative space.8

As evidence of the state's failure to provide "suitable educational opportunities," the plaintiffs further rely on educational "outputs" from the previously discussed schools, as measured by the "adequate yearly progress" on student achievement tests required under the federal No Child Left Behind Act; 20 U.S.C. § 6301 et seq.; including the Connecticut Mastery Test and the Connecticut Academic Performance Test.9 Indeed, students in these schools failed to complete essential courses, such as chemistry and algebra I, at a rate exceeding the statewide average.10 The plaintiffs also emphasize the higher than statewide average rates of students at these schools who either are retained or advanced despite not being ready for promotion.11 Finally, the plaintiffs emphasize the higher than average cumulative dropout rate at these districts' high schools when compared to the statewide average of 10 percent, most notably, Plainfield and Bridgeport's dropout rates of 20 and 45 percent respectively.

The plaintiffs allege that these deficiencies are the product of a flawed educational funding system that has failed to provide and "effectively manage" the resources necessary to ensure suitable and substantially equal educational opportunities in the public schools, which are state agencies managed by local school districts. Specifically, schools are funded by two sources, namely, local property taxes and state grants to municipalities via the educational cost sharing system pursuant to General Statutes § 10-262f et seq. Although the state board of education has taken the position that the state and municipalities should bear the costs of education equally, the educational cost sharing system grants have accounted for only 39 percent of school funding in Connecticut. The plaintiffs attribute this shortfall to: (1) the legislature's failure to raise the "foundation" grant amount from $5891 since 1999; see General Statutes (Rev. to 2007) § 10-262f (9)(G);12 (2) the failure of that "foundation" amount to account for the "actual costs of providing special education students with suitable and substantially equal educational opportunities"; and (3) the failure of "the minimum base aid ratio"; see General Statutes (Rev. to 2007) § 10-262f (2);13 which addresses a municipality's ability to pay and to calculate accurately a town's ability to raise the necessary funds. The plaintiffs reside in communities that "do not have the ability to raise the funds needed to compensate for the monetary shortfalls that result from the state's arbitrary...

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