On Wednesday, January 17, 2018, a divided Connecticut Supreme Court issued a seminal decision in the long-running state education case Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding, Inc. v. Rell (“CCJEF II”). In an opinion authored by Chief Justice Chase Rogers, a majority of the Court found that while the Connecticut Constitution does confer the right to a minimally adequate education it goes no further. Thus, as Chief Justice Rogers wrote in the court’s decision: “It is not the function of the courts . . . 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. Rather, the function of the courts is to determine whether the narrow and specific criteria for a minimally adequate educational system under our state constitution have been satisfied.”
The Court’s decision likely marks the end of over twelve years of litigation in the CCJEF matter. Back in 2010, when the Connecticut Supreme Court heard the case in a different legal context, it ruled that the Connecticut Constitution entitles Connecticut children to a minimally adequate educational opportunity. Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Educ. Funding, Inc. v. Rell, 295 Conn. 240 (2010) (“CCJEF I”). At that time, the Court stated that a constitutionally conferred, minimally adequate educational opportunity “is an education suitable to give (students) the opportunity to be responsible citizens able to participate fully in democratic institutions, such as jury service and voting,” and one that will prepare students “to progress to institutions of higher education, or to obtain productive employment and otherwise contribute to the state’s economy.” CCJEF I at 270.
More recently, in September 2016, following a lengthy trial, the Connecticut Superior Court (Moukawsher, J.) issued a 90-plus page decision in the CCJEF case that found that while the money the State of Connecticut spent on education in underperforming school districts met minimum constitutional requirements, the funding system itself, along with other aspects of state educational policy, were irrational and thus constitutionally deficient. Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Educ., Inc. v. Rell, No. X07HHDCV145037565S, (Conn. Super. Ct. Sept. 7, 2016). Yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling affirms the Superior Court decision in part, but overrules it to the extent that it purported to establish a constitutional standard at variance with the minimally adequate educational opportunity standard announced in CCJEF I.
What does it mean?
While there is great deal to unpack in the decision (the majority opinion alone is 52 pages long), and Education Law Notes will have more to say on the CCJEF II decision in coming days, at its core the Connecticut Supreme Court’s decision represents a refusal by the Court to interject itself into educational policy decisions. While the Court in CCJEF I found that the Connecticut Constitution requires that Connecticut schoolchildren be provided with a minimally adequate educational opportunity, the Court in CCJEF II holds that so long as a minimally adequate educational opportunity is provided, Connecticut’s courts have no further role. According to the Court, the rationality — or irrationality as the case may be — of Connecticut’s educational funding system or any other aspect of its education policy, such as tenure and collective bargaining laws, and special education spending, is the province of the legislature. Accordingly, at least for the moment, statewide efforts to reform Connecticut’s education system will have to be directed towards the General Assembly.