In a long-standing effort to desegregate Connecticut’s schools, the State has created a myriad of educational options for families including inter-district magnet schools, charter schools and the open choice program that allow students in one district to attend open seats in schools in other districts. There are often long waiting lists for these schools and a large number of students each year are turned away due to the lack of space in these programs. Several families from urban districts who have unsuccessfully applied for seats in these alternative schools filed a federal lawsuit in 2016 alleging that the State’s statutes, which they allege put a moratorium on building new magnet schools, limit the number of available charter school seats and discourage suburban districts from offering additional open choice seats, violated their federal constitutional rights to equal protection and due process. At the core of their complaint in Martinez v. Malloy et al, an action in Federal Court in Connecticut, was an allegation that the students, who are all minorities, are deprived of their “fundamental right to a minimally adequate education” and their “fundamental right to a substantially equal education” because of the State’s limitations on enrollment in these alternative programs.
The United States Supreme Court ruled over forty years ago in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 1 (1973) that education is not a fundamental right under federal law. In that case, the plaintiffs contended that Texas’s school financing system violated the Equal Protection clause of the U.S. Constitution because it relied heavily on local property taxes, resulting in wide disparities in per pupil expenditure among districts. The Court held that there was no fundamental right to an education, and therefore, no equal protection violation in a funding system that resulted in large disparities of resources among districts but that did not systematically discriminate against all lower-income families throughout Texas.
This is contrasted with the later U.S. Supreme Court decision in Plyler v. Doe, 457 U.S. 202 (1982). In that case, the Court addressed a Texas law that denied the children of illegal aliens the right to enroll into public schools and entirely withheld funding from schools for the education of the children of illegal aliens. While again affirming that public education was not a right guaranteed under the Federal Constitution, the Court this time found an Equal Protection violation based in large part on the fact that these children were denied the right to any public education at all based solely on the fact that their parents were illegal aliens.
In Martinez, the Federal District Court rejected the plaintiffs’ claims that the various Connecticut laws that limit the availability of seats in magnet, charter and open choice schools violated either the Equal Protection or Due Process clauses of the U.S. Constitution. The Court reasoned that because there is no fundamental right to education under the U.S. Constitution, then there is no “right to substantial equality of educational opportunity under the Equal Protection Clause” of the U.S. Constitution. The District Court similarly held that because there was no fundamental right to an education, then there also was no federal constitutional right to a “minimally adequate education.” Because the laws in question apply equally to all children and because there is not a claim that an entire group of children are being denied any education at all, the District Court found that the rational basis test applied. The Court then held that the plaintiffs had failed to establish a lack of rational basis for the laws in question and dismissed the complaint.
This is not the end to the question of educational equality in Connecticut, especially because the Connecticut Constitution provides a different framework for answering it. Earlier this year, the Connecticut Supreme Court in Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding, Inc. v. Rell ruled that “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.” In that case, the Court held that under the Connecticut Constitution (as opposed to the Federal Constitution) students are entitled to a minimally adequate education and found that the State had met that requirement. More information on this case can be accessed in previous posts.
Additionally, the recently filed case Robinson v. Wentzell, filed in the Federal District Court in Connecticut, involves a U.S. constitutional challenge to the systems used by the State of Connecticut to seat children in magnet schools. Oral arguments on motions to dismiss filed by the defendants in that case were heard this week and it is anticipated that a decision will be issued shortly. Finally, the parties in Sheff v. O’Neill have been unable to reach a new settlement, prompting the plaintiffs to request Connecticut Superior Court intervention. If settlement is not reached between the parties, this case is likely to be heard by the Superior Court in the near future. Thus, it is likely that within the next year, Connecticut will have more clarity on the question of educational equality and access across the State.