In a unanimous ruling, a New Jersey Appeals Court has affirmed a trial court’s dismissal of a lawsuit to obtain private school vouchers for students in “failing” public schools.

Plaintiffs in — several named students — filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of all students attending 96 public schools that plaintiffs alleged are “failing” based on state test scores. Plaintiffs also alleged that these schools do not provide a “thorough and efficient” education, as required by the state constitution, and sought a remedy in which the State would institute a voucher program giving students the choice of leaving their “failing” schools to attend “successful” schools, either public or private within or outside their school district boundaries.

The Crawford lawsuit was spearheaded by various New Jersey and national private school voucher groups.

The trial court dismissed the suit against the defendant school districts, finding that the defendant school districts were not appropriate defendants because they could not unilaterally provide the relief sought by plaintiffs, and that the plaintiffs’ claims presented a non-justiciable political question.

The appellate court affirmed the dismissal, but on different grounds. The appeals court concluded that the plaintiffs’ claims are premature, as they “seek a wholesale restructuring of New Jersey’s system of locally-based public schools prior to there having been an opportunity for the full implementation and operation of the statutory and remedial measures” created under the recently-enacted School Funding Reform Act (SFRA). The court noted that the State Supreme Court, in the landmark Abbott v. Burke school finance case recently held in Abbott XX (May 28, 2009) that SFRA “deserves the chance to prove in practice that, as designed, it satisfies the requirements of our constitution.” The Appellate Court stated that “[w]hile plaintiffs may have the right to pursue their claims under the ‘thorough and efficient education’ clause in an appropriate forum at some point in the future, they cannot do so until SFRA has had the opportunity to operate as required by Abbott XX.”

The Court also concluded that plaintiffs raised no viable claims on state or federal equal protection grounds nor pursuant to other state law. Having dismissed all of plaintiffs’ claims, the court did not reach the issue of whether the defendant schools districts were proper defendants.

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