Courtesy of Students Matter

A California-based education advocacy group backed by Silicon Valley entrepreneur David Welch filed a federal lawsuit in Connecticut Tuesday seeking to establish a federal constitutional right to an adequate education.

In the lawsuit, four inner-city parents complain that they’re forced to send their children to failing public schools because they were unable to win a lottery to attend a magnet or charter school.

“These inner-city children are compelled to attend public schools that the state knows have been failing its students for decades — consistently failing to provide even a minimally adequate education,” according to the lawsuit.

Jessica Martinez, the lead plaintiff, said her 13-year-old son, Jose, attends John Winthrop School in Bridgeport. According to the lawsuit the school is “an under-performing traditional district school.”

“Martinez v. Malloy is about taking away barriers created by the state that prevent access to opportunity,” Martinez said Wednesday in a conference call with reporters. “It’s about giving parents and communities an opportunity to demand the quality education our children deserve.”

The lawsuit argues that Connecticut has taken steps to prevent poor and minority children from having viable public-school alternatives and is knowingly depriving these students of educational opportunity “available to their more affluent and predominantly white peers.”

During a Wednesday conference call with reporters, Josh Lipshutz, co-lead counsel for the plaintiffs, said, “The state knows that this dichotomy exists, but it has taken actions that will force these students to attend failing schools.”

The lawsuit takes aim at a 2009 moratorium on new magnet schools, a cap on the expansion of charter schools, and a per-student funding formula that limits the number of districts participating in the Open Choice program, where city students attend suburban schools.

In Connecticut, “it’s particularly cruel what’s being done to children,” Ted Boutrous Jr., another attorney for the plaintiffs, said. “It’s like the dangling of these great schools that are within reach. They’re there and instead the state erects these barriers to block access to them.”

The lawsuit contends that Connecticut is infringing on the federal constitutional rights of children in violation of the due process and equal protection clauses of the U.S. Constitution.

Boutrous says, if necessary, they would ask the U.S. Supreme Court to overrule or narrow the reach of its 1973 decision, San Antonio v. Rodriguez, which held that the federal constitution does not guarantee a fundamental right to equal education. The plaintiff’s argue that San Antonio v. Rodriguez cannot be reconciled with the developments of the past 40 years and must not be used as an excuse to allow States to treat inner-city children as second-class citizens.

“It’s one of the most fundamental attributes of our society,” Boutrous said in support of establishing at least a minimal federal constitutional right to an adequate education.

Historically, when states fail to protect the constitutional rights of citizens under their own constitutions and their own laws, then citizens have had to turn to the federal court, Boutrous said, explaining why they chose to file the lawsuit in U.S. District Court.

A spokeswoman for the Attorney General’s office said the state has not yet been served with the lawsuit and will respond at the appropriate time in court.

Abbe Smith, a spokeswoman for the Connecticut Education Department, didn’t address the content of the lawsuit directly.

“With record-high graduation rates, rising test scores in reading and math, more great school options for families than ever before, and greater resources going to public schools that need help the most, Connecticut is delivering more than ever on the promise of a public education for our students,” Smith said. “It’s a record to be proud of — and a record that we continue to build on each and every day.”

The state is involved in another lawsuit regarding access to an adequate public school education, filed by the Connecticut Coalition For Justice In Education Funding. A decision in that lawsuit is expected in the fall.

That lawsuit contends that “the current K-12 public education finance system fails to meet state constitutional standards,” Jim Finley, principal consultant to the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding, said. “The system is unconstitutional because it does not provide an opportunity for all our students, particularly our poor and minority students, to graduate high school ready to join the workforce, ready to seek higher education, and ready to be an active participant in civic life. The CCJEF case is about adequate and equitable opportunity for all students, those in traditional, magnet, charter and technical schools.”

The California-based education advocacy group is the same one that financed a lawsuit asserting that California’s teacher-tenure system unconstitutionally deprived students of a quality education because it was difficult to get rid of ineffective teachers.

In 2014, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu ruled a handful of statutes in California’s education code were unconstitutional, because they harm poor and minority students and reward bad teachers.
Earlier this year, a three-judge panel of the Second Appellate District reversed that decision and ruled the statutes do not violate equal-protection laws under the California Constitution.

Beatriz Vergara, the lead plaintiff in that lawsuit, appealed the ruling to the California Supreme Court, which on Monday denied her petition for review leaving the state’s tenure laws intact.

AFT Connecticut President Jan Hochadel, the head of Connecticut’s second largest teacher union, said Welch, the founder of Students Matter who has bankrolled at least three education lawsuits, claimed that “we know what works” in public education.

She said that’s true and it’s laid out in a bipartisan report on best practices released earlier this month by the National Council of State Legislatures. However, the lawsuit filed Tuesday includes none of those recommendations and “does nothing that addresses the actual needs of Connecticut’s students.”

She said the lawsuit is calling for the expansion of schools operated by outside charter management companies.

“That’s not in the NCSL report, and we know in Connecticut it’s not what works to assure a great quality education for all students,” Hochadel said.

Asked Wednesday why he’s chosen to file lawsuits, instead of lobbying lawmakers to make changes to the educational system, Welch said “the courts are a complete part of our governmental and political process.”

Welch said the courts are there to “protect the rights of individuals and when the legislature repeatedly shows its inability to act in the best judgment of the rights of individuals then the courts need to live up to that responsibility.” He added that since 2009 there have been laws on the books in Connecticut that “inhibit opportunities of children and have infringed the rights of children.” He said in that context the courts have to play a role in protecting the rights of the children.