By Tim Walker
As critical funding for schools gets squeezed out of budgets across the country, public education advocates have taken their state governments to court for violating their constitutional obligation to provide a basic quality education for students.In a key victory for Connecticut schools last month, the state Supreme Court overturned an earlier lower court decision and ruled that the state’s constitution does in fact require that schoolchildren receive a “suitable” education. The decision revived a lawsuit filed in 2005 filed by the Connecticut Coalition for Justice and Education Funding (CCJEF) that contends that the state underfunding of education was irreparably harming thousands of schoolchildren.
John Yrchik, executive director of the Connecticut Education Association, a member of CCJEF, praised the Court’s decision as a victory for those “who have long claimed that state educational funding laws have deprived students of a an equal educational opportunity.”
Connecticut is now the latest state to recognize that schoolchildren have a state constitutional right to an adequate education. New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts are among more than 20 others that have already recognized such a right.
Across the country in Washington, a Superior Court judge issued a similar ruling in February, saying the state was in violation of its constitutionally mandated paramount duty to properly fund public education.
“The State is failing in its constitutional duty to make ample provision for the education of all children,” Judge John Erlick wrote in his decision. “This court is convinced that basic education is not being funded by a stable and dependable source of funds provided by the state.”
The lawsuit was brought by families and the Network for Excellence in Washington Schools (NEWS), a 70-member coalition of community groups and education advocates, including the Washington Education Association. Similar actions are also underway in Colorado and possibly Illinois.
These victories scored by public education advocates are signs that their aggressive stand against unfair funding formulas are paying off. Although many have turned to the courts to force the state to take action, Oregon schools celebrated a huge victory in January when a statewide referendum calling for higher taxes on wealthy individuals and corporations to fill budget gaps in key public services, including education, passed easily.
In Connecticut and Washington, however, the issue is far from resolved. In Connecticut, the CCJEF lawsuit goes to trial to determine if, in fact, public school students in the state have been provided with a constitutionally suitable education, a process that will probably take years. In Washington, the state’s attorney general filed a motion in late March to appeal the superior court’s decision, a move denounced by NEWS coalition attorney Tom Ahearne.
“The state on one hand is cutting overall education funding,” Ahearne said. “On the other hand, it’s saying it has plenty of money to pay its lawyers to stall and delay. Our constitution is clear: education, not litigation, is the paramount duty of the State.”
The Washington Supreme Court will likely hear the appeal in September.
Photo: High school teachers in Naugatuck, Conn., protest state education budget cuts. Photo provided by Connecticut Education Association