By Wendy Lecker
In a groundbreaking decision, Vice Chancellor J. Travis Laster of the Court of Chancery ruled on November 27 that the Delaware constitution guarantees a meaningful education that enables all students to achieve State academic standards. Judge Laster denied the State of Delaware’s (State) motion to dismiss Delawareans for Educational Opportunity (“D.E.O.”) v. Carney, a lawsuit challenging the State’s failure to fulfill its constitutional obligation to Delaware students, paving the way for the case to move forward to trial.
The two plaintiff organizations are Delawareans for Educational Opportunity and the Delaware NAACP, represented by Ryan Tack-Hooper and Karen Lantz of the ACLU of Delaware and Richard Morse and Brian Eng of the Community Legal Aid Society, Inc. Education Law Center filed an amicus curiae, or “friend of the court,” brief on behalf of the plaintiffs. The brief was prepared by David K. Lukmire of O’Melveny & Myers in New York and Norman M. Monhait of Wilmington’s Rosenthal, Monhait & Goddess.
The Plaintiffs’ and Defendants’ Claims
The Plaintiffs claim that Delaware’s public school funding system, which underfunds the state’s poorest districts while directing more funding toward the wealthiest, coupled with State policies that increase school segregation, deprives economically disadvantaged students, English Language Learners (ELL) and students with disabilities of their constitutional right to an adequate education. The plaintiffs contend that the State’s funding system is inadequate and inequitable, and as a result, poorer districts with high concentrations of needy students cannot provide sufficient resources to enable those students to succeed in school. Moreover, the State funding system places an undue burden on taxpayers in school districts with low property values. As Judge Laster found, even the State’s own reports document the need for increased school funding and restructuring of the finance system. The Court also recognized that, because disadvantaged children have additional needs, the schools serving those students need more resources, not fewer.
The complaint details the deficits in essential educational resources in Delaware schools, such as small class size, skilled teachers, reading specialists and other academic support staff, guidance counselors and other social supports, after school programs, and mental health services. The complaint also alleges that State laws on student assignment and charter school enrollment consign the most needy and costly-to-educate students in racially segregated, high poverty schools, the very same schools most shortchanged by the State’s unfair funding system.
As a result of the severe need for educational resources, Delaware’s economically disadvantaged students, ELLs and students with disabilities have the lowest achievement levels in the state, as measured by the State’s own performance metrics.
In its motion to dismiss, the State did not deny the abysmal student outcomes of vulnerable students nor the State’s failure to provide an adequate education to these students. Rather, the State contended that the education clause of Delaware’s constitution merely requires the State have a system of public schools. According to the State, “It does not matter for constitutional purposes whether the system does any educating.” The State further contended that even if there were a qualitative right to education, that right is not “justiciable.” In other words, the State claimed that the courts do not have the power to adjudicate violations of the constitutional right to education, nor are there any “judicially manageable standards” for a court to apply.
The Right to an Education in Delaware
Judge Laster firmly rejected the State’s claim that there is no qualitative right to a meaningful education under the Delaware constitution. He noted with horror that under the State’s interpretation, a “nightmare scenario” where the “State could corral Disadvantaged Students into warehouses, hand out one book for every fifty students, assign some adults to maintain discipline, and tell the students to take turns reading to themselves” would be acceptable.
The Court noted that the question of the substance of the right to an education under the education clause had never been decided by a Delaware court. Analyzing the plain language of the constitution as well as the legislative history of the education clause, the court ruled that a qualitative right to education exists in Delaware. As the judge stated, “[i]t is not possible to divorce a mandate to establish and maintain a system of public schools from the expectation that the schools will educate the students who attend them.”
Regarding the type of education that the constitution requires, Judge Laster ruled that the court should look to the academic standards established by the State itself. The judge recognized that some courts in other states have avoided this approach because it runs the risk of constitutionalizing the prevailing standards of the day or being merely symbolic. He countered that the political branches are best suited to keep up with changing education demands, and in the event the State’s academic standards are unacceptably low or nonexistent, the court could then step in and establish a constitutional minimum.
Judge Laster dismissed the State’s claims of non-justiciability, noting that determining whether the State has fulfilled a constitutional obligation is a core court function, and a failure to adjudicate the case would constitute “an abdication of the judiciary’s responsibility in the area of education.” Moreover, the judge ruled that, contrary to the State’s claim, the court has judicially manageable standards: the “standards for school adequacy and grade-level proficiency that the political branches have established.”
In denying the State’s motion to dismiss, Judge Laster ruled the plaintiffs set forth sufficient allegations regarding the violation of the educational rights of Delaware’s most disadvantaged students. The judge ruled that the allegations of low student outcomes would be sufficient on their own but the plaintiffs also presented detailed allegations of deficient education inputs and inadequate, inequitable and discriminatory funding.
Growing National Consensus
In this case of first impression in Delaware, Judge Laster relied upon the plain language of the education guarantee in the state constitution and constitutional history. But the judge also based his ruling on a growing body of court precedent in challenges to inadequate school funding, resources and outcomes in sister state courts all across the nation. The judge cited the most recent decisions by Pennsylvania, New Mexico, and Minnesota courts on the substance of the constitutional right to education and the judiciary’s role in adjudicating and enforcing the right to education in these states.
The Delaware ruling is the latest in the effort by civil rights, public interest and private bar attorneys to successfully challenge inadequate funding and education under the affirmative right to education guaranteed in all 50 state constitutions. These efforts are now yielding a strong and growing consensus across the nation that these constitutional rights to education must ensure all children access to well-funded, well-resourced schools and a meaningful opportunity to achieve state academic standards.
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