Lawsuits Seek to Broaden Meaning of ‘Adequate,’ ‘Equitable’ Education

By Daarel Burnette II — April 10, 2017 5 min read
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Last week, I wrote about Kansas’ legislature which is internally fighting over ways to address a state supreme court ruling that called their funding formula “inadequate.”

From my story:

State courts have sparred with politicians for decades over how much money lawmakers are constitutionally obligated to provide public schools.

But in Kansas this year, lawmakers and school officials are asking deeper questions about not only how much money is spent but also where to invest that money to assure that black, Latino, and low-income students, in particular, are seeing academic results.

Last week, a bill was proposed in the Kansas House to add more than $750 million to public schools over five years. That bill is now competing with another bill that wants to pour just $75 million more into the schools which would crack down on academically wayward schools, upend the state’s accreditation process to demand faster gains, offer vouchers to students “trapped” at chronically failing schools, and more strictly target money to intervention programs for the state’s poor students.

What made Kansas’ ruling unique, school funding experts told me, is that the judges there recognized that the amount of money you pour into a public school system may matter as much, if not more, than the way you distribute that money.

For decades, school districts and parents have used state courts as a way to force state politicians to fork more money over to their K-12 public schools. The courts use a mix of educators’ testimony, fiscal studies and districts’ and states’ budget books to determine whether the way and the amount states spend their education dollars is, as their constitution dictates, equitable and adequate.

A new round of school-related lawsuits could dramatically expand courts’ interpretation of equitable and adequate education.

Michael Rebell, a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University who tracks funding cases said while state judges have set a precedent on determining levels of funding for public schools, they’ve “shied away” from dictating to states how to close those disparities.

“It gets into this question of what expertise, what capability, courts have in getting into educational policy issues,” Rebell said in a phone interview.

Below are a rundown of pending or recently decided cases that push to broaden the meaning of “adequate” and “equitable” education.

Vergara v. California

In this case, a group of students sued California in a state court arguing that its tenure laws make it nearly impossible to fire “grossly ineffective” teachers and thus pose a direct harm to students, effectively violating students’ rights to an “equitable” education. The state’s supreme court ultimately ruled against the plaintiffs, but the lawsuit sparked a lawsuit in Minnesota where parents sued the state arguing that the laws surrounding its teaching requirements leave the state’s poor students with a disproportionate number of ill-prepared teachers. That lawsuit was soon tossed by a lower-court judge, but plaintiffs at the time said they planned to appeal to the state’s supreme court.

Cruz-Guzman v. State of Minnesota

In a separate lawsuit, a group of parents from charter and traditional public schools sued Minnesota in late 2015 for violating that state’s constitutional rights to an adequate and equitable education. They argue that Minneapolis and St. Paul officials both resegregated their school systems over the last decade, clustering black, Latino, and immigrant students in underperforming schools with few resources.

A lower court judge determined it was not the state’s role to determine state and district education policies, a point the plaintiffs’ lawyer, Dan Shulman, took issue with. He cited a long precedent in Minnesota and across the country of state judges intervening on behalf of black, Latino, and poor students and said the court had taken a “wrong turn.”

“If a legislature is recalcitrant, refractory and won’t do anything, the court could always appoint a receiver to do it for them,” he said.

Earlier this year, I wrote about the perceptions of violence in St. Paul schools after the redistricting of its public schools.

Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding Inc. v. Rell, Jodi, M. Et. al.

What was originally a school funding lawsuit quickly morphed into a lower court ruling that could potentially upend the state’s entire school accountability system. In September last year, Connecticut Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher ordered the state’s legislature and department of education to, within the next six months, come up with a new school funding formula, teacher-evaluation system, and standards to close the achievement gap between the state’s poor urban and more-affluent suburban children. The actual 90-page ruling is worth the read.

The state’s attorney general has appealed the case, arguing that it’s not the court’s role to dictate education policy. The state’s supreme court is set to decide soon whether to uphold the lower-court ruling.

Group of Parents v. Gov. Snyder, the Michigan Board of Education, Brian Whiston, the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, and Natasha Baker, the State School Reform/Redesign Officer

Last year, a group of parents from charter schools and public schools in Detroit sued in federal court a plethora of state officials for violating their U.S. constitutional rights by denying their children a right to literacy. The parents argue that the state deprived its poor black and Latino students access to books, quality teachers, sufficient curriculum and safe buildings, making it almost impossible to learn to read. Without literacy skills, lawyers argue, graduates of Detroit’s public schools have an increasingly difficult time being “active citizens” such as voting, serving on juries or in the military.

An earlier and separate funding case in Michigan state courts was tossed because that state’s constitution doesn’t define the type of education students are required to receive, only that they’re “encouraged” to receive an education.

Winning a federal case could set a precedent closely watched across the country. The parents are asking for “evidence-based literacy reforms.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.