Education Advocates and Scholars Urge Maryland Appellate Court to Reverse Ruling in Landmark School Funding Case

Education Law Center, the American Federation of Teachers, the Center for Educational Equity, the National Center for Youth Law, and over thirty constitutional and education law scholars filed an amici curiae (friends of the court) brief in the Maryland Court of Appeals in the long-running school funding case, Bradford v. Maryland State Board of Education.

The brief, which supports the public school parents who brought the lawsuit, urges the appellate court to reverse the circuit court’s March 2023 decision granting summary judgment for the defendants and denying summary judgment for the plaintiffs, thereby stopping the suit in its tracks.

The brief argues the circuit court’s decision ignored the consensus of courts across the country in education funding cases as well as Maryland’s own precedent, that recognizes a qualitative right to education under state constitutions that evolves with time, and that an analysis of the sufficiency of educational resources, student outcomes and their relation to state funding is a necessary prerequisite to any judicial determination of constitutional adequacy.

The brief signers are represented pro bono by the firm Debevoise & Plimpton LLP.

History of the Bradford Case

The Bradford case was first filed in 1994 by Baltimore City Public School System (BCPSS) parents, alleging that the State’s underfunding of BCPSS schools violated students’ constitutional right to an adequate education. The parents are represented by Baker & Hostetler LLP, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, and the ACLU of Maryland.

In 1996, the Circuit Court for Baltimore City, drawing on Maryland precedent, ruled that the education clause of Maryland’s Constitution guaranteed that all students in the state’s public schools be provided with an education that is “adequate when measured by contemporary educational standards.” 

Presented with evidence of unacceptably low student outcomes in BCPSS, such as low test scores, chronic absenteeism, and lagging graduation rates, the court granted partial summary judgment to the plaintiffs. The parties to the lawsuit then entered into a consent decree requiring increased funding.

In 2000, 2002, and 2004, the parent plaintiffs returned to the court to complain that the State was failing to provide students with an adequate education as measured by contemporary standards, including by failing to provide sufficient funding, and the court agreed.

Bradford Case Reopened

After the court repeatedly found constitutional deficiencies on the part of the State, along with persistent failures by the State to remedy those deficiencies, the parents moved to reopen the case in 2019. In a 2020 decision, the circuit court permitted them to do so, denying the State’s motion to dismiss the case.

In 2022, the parents’ lawyers presented expert reports, testimony and documentary evidence showing persistent underfunding of Baltimore public schools by the State, resulting in severe deficiencies in key educational resources and poor student outcomes. While the State conceded that student outcomes were “sobering,” it contended that the Maryland Constitution required the State to do nothing more than it was currently doing. The State argued that Maryland students were not entitled to an “adequate education as measured by contemporary standards” under Maryland’s education clause. But the State also failed to define the level of education Maryland’s Constitution required.

The circuit court granted the State’s motion for summary judgment, and denied the plaintiffs’, ruling that the education clause “only requires an effort by the State to at most provide a basic education.” It concluded, with no findings of fact, that “[b]asic education for the students at BCPSS is provided.” The plaintiffs then appealed to the Maryland Court of Appeals.

Amici Curiae Brief

In their brief, ELC and co-amici argue that the circuit court’s decision ignores both decisions made by other state courts interpreting similar constitutional provisions and Maryland’s own precedent. 

The brief explains that courts across the nation recognize a qualitative dimension in the education clauses in their state constitutions: that students must be afforded an opportunity to develop the skills and knowledge to prepare them for citizenship and the labor market.  Courts also overwhelmingly agree that the definition of an adequate education must evolve over time to keep pace with the needs of a changing society. The brief notes that previous Maryland precedent was consistent with the national consensus. The brief also points out that the circuit court in this case previously accepted this constitutional standard, and it was only the 2023 decision that was wildly out of step with established precedent.

The brief states that the circuit court ignored the essential educational resources necessary for a constitutionally adequate education, including programs, staff, and services for “at-risk” students, and adequate facilities. The court failed to do the proper analysis conducted by courts across the nation in school funding cases: assessing the adequacy of inputs (educational resources), outputs (student outcomes), and causation (whether insufficient state funding played a role in the deficient inputs and outputs). Though the court conducted this exact analysis in 2004, the 2023 decision is devoid of any mention of insufficient inputs, low student outcomes, or inadequate state funding.

The brief signers urge the Court of Appeals to reverse the lower court’s ruling and send the case back to the lower court with instructions to conduct the proper constitutional analysis.

Related Story:


Share this post:

Press Contact:
Sharon Krengel
Director of Policy, Strategic Partnerships and Communications
973-624-1815, x240