Are lawsuits the way to improve education reforms?
| Rochester Democrat and Chronicle
Class action lawsuits over education and the RCSD budget crunch
Time To Educate reporters Justin Murphy and Erica Bryant discuss class action lawsuits over education around the country and the RCSD budget crunch
Justin Murphy and Erica Bryant and Virginia Butler, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle
Around the country, educational advocates are taking the fight for decent schools to court. Such suits can make a difference, said Michael Rebell, co-founder of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity. In 2006, this non-profit organization won the landmark CFE v. New York lawsuit, resulting in a state commitment to spend billions more on education statewide. The state has not fully fulfilled its CFE commitment and Rebell has returned to court with another lawsuit. “We are trying to keep the pressure on,” he said.
Though litigation can be a long road, it can lead to lasting change. Rebell points to the Abbott v. Burke lawsuit filed in 1981, on behalf of children in 28 poorer school districts in New Jersey. It charged that the state’s school funding law was unconstitutional because it caused major disparities between poor and wealthy districts. As a result of the suit, New Jersey’s high needs districts, on average, get more resources per capita than its wealthy districts. “I can’t think of any other state in the country where that is true,” Rebell said. Rebell gives this advice to local education reformers: “Push to get the full CFE funding,” he said. “I think that would make a big different for Rochester.”
Over the years, several lawsuits have attempted to change education conditions in Rochester.
The Paynter vs State of New York, lawsuit contended that the state had reinforced patterns of racial and economic isolation that were the principle cause of educational failure among Rochester City School District students. This suit was dismissed in 2003.
The education of students with special needs has been the subject of extended litigation. In 1981, Empire Justice Center sued the district for its failures in special education. The district set forth a plan of improvement, but conditions remain poor. After years of negotiation, the Rochester City School District has entered an agreement outlining specific consequences if it does not fix its special education department in three years.
Here are a sampling of recent education lawsuits around the country that allege different states are failing to honor students’ rights to an adequate or equitable education.
William Penn et al. v. PA Dept. of Ed
Six families and six school districts filed a lawsuit that charges that state funding for education is inadequate and not equitable. Trial is set to begin in 2020.
Gary B v Snyder
A group of students from Detroit’s five worst public schools sued the state in federal court in 2016. They argued that they had a constitutional right to access to basic literacy, which the schools were not providing. The state argued that literacy is a privilege rather than a right. U.S. District Court in Detroit sided with the state saying children had no fundamental right to learn to read and write. An appeal is planned.
Cruz-Guzman v. State of Minnesota
A class action suit filed by parents in Minnesota argues that the state has enabled racially segregated schools in Saint Paul and Minneapolis that fail to provide an adequate education to children of color. The Minnesota Constitution mandates a “general and uniform system of public schools.” The plaintiffs argue that desegregation will create more equal learning opportunities.
Yazzie/Martinez v. State of New Mexico
A state judge ruled in 2018 that New Mexico was violating the constitutional rights of its students by failing to provide them with an adequate education. The court gave the state until April 15, 2019 to provide a remedy for the fact that the state is not providing enough resources to schools that serve low income students, English Language learners, students with special needs and Native American students.
Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding v Vell
Several school districts and municipalities filed a lawsuit against the state saying that the funding system was not equitable. A judge ruled that total education funding was adequate, but that it was distributed in such a way that poor students were not being equitably educated. The State Supreme Court overturned this ruling, saying that the judiciary is limited to determining whether the state is providing a minimally adequate education.
Robinson et al v. Wentzell case
Parents have filed a federal lawsuit to undo a race-based quota system that integrated Hartford’s city magnet schools. They say that requirements that these schools have no less than 25 percent white students are hurting minority students who might want to enroll.
Cook v. Raimondo
Public school families are suing the state of Rhode Island for providing an education that is so poor it prevents people from exercising their constitutional rights. A person without basic literacy and civics competency cannot vote, for example, a right guaranteed by the fifteenth amendment.
Peter P., et al. v. Compton Unified School District
Five students in the Compton Unified School District filed a federal class action law suit saying that students who have experienced traumatic events ought to be entitled to the kinds of accommodations and resources provided to students under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
A lawsuit challenges the constitutionality of Vermont’s education funding, saying that it violates the Constitution’s clauses on common benefits, proportional contribution and education.
NYSER v State of New York
This lawsuit was filed in 2014, charging that New York State is neglecting its constitutional obligation to provide enough education funding to provide all students with meaningful educational opportunity. It is built upon the legal basis established by the CFE vs New York case, which says that the state constitution entitles all students to the opportunity for a sound basic education, including a meaningful high school education that prepares them to be capable citizens and competitive workers. The parties are preparing for trial.
Maisto v State of New York
In January, Justice Kimberly O’Connor dismissed a lawsuit from several New York school districts that challenged the adequacy of the state’s education funding system. O’Connor wrote that the educational outcomes in the district are “undeniably inadequate.” However she said that plaintiffs focused on the need for additional resources to help students overcome challenges outside the classroom, including poverty, breakdown of family structure and absence of parental guidance. “It is not the core mission of the educational system to repair these outside social concerns and problems,” her decision stated. The plaintiffs are likely to appeal.
Glendale Elementary School District v. State of Arizona
In 2017, four Arizona school district sued the state of Arizona, saying that it had failed to provide adequate funding for school maintenance. The districts contend that the lack of funding for maintenance of buildings, buses and materials forced the schools to divert money away from needed classroom resources, thus harming student’s ability to learn.
Delawareans for Educational Opportunity v. Carney
The American Civil Liberties Union of Delaware and Community Legal Aid Society sued the state in 2018 saying that the state had failed to fairly and adequately fund schools in the state. The plaintiffs allege that Delaware has failed to provide sufficient funds specifically for students who are low-income, have disabilities or are learning English.
Woods et al. v. State
In 2017, a judge dismissed a lawsuit from former and current students of the Davenport Community School District that alleged that the state’s funding formula created inequities and was unconstitutional. The plaintiff’s claim was rejected in part because “whether there is a fundamental right to education remains an open question in Iowa.” Plaintiffs are expected to appeal.