As a national leader in defending the right to education, Education Law Center currently represents public school children in courtrooms from New York to Michigan. Our lawsuits, filed in support of grassroots education justice campaigns, tackle serious threats to educational opportunity, especially for students at-risk from poverty, English language learners, and students with disabilities and other special needs.
Here’s a roundup of our major pending cases:
In July, nine parents representing every borough in New York City filed a petition with State Commissioner of Education MaryEllen Elia, charging that the City Department of Education (DOE) failed to reduce class sizes as mandated by the Contract for Excellence Law (C4E). New York City’s Public Advocate, Letitia James, and two advocacy groups, Class Size Matters and the Alliance for Quality Education, joined in the petition.
In 2007, as required by the C4E law, the DOE developed a five-year class size reduction plan for the city’s public schools, but never delivered on that plan. Instead, class sizes have increased sharply, particularly in the early grades, and are now much larger than when the C4E law was enacted. The petitioners are asking the Education Commissioner to order the DOE to reduce class sizes under the 2007 plan and align the school construction capital plan with the class size averages in the plan. The legal filings are complete, and the petitioners are awaiting Commissioner Elia’s decision.
The Maisto lawsuit, also known as the “Small Cities” case, is a challenge to inadequate school funding in eight upstate districts. The parent and student plaintiffs are seeking an order for the State to provide these districts with the funding and essential resources necessary for a “sound basic education,” as guaranteed by the New York Constitution.
The trial of the case in 2015 lasted two months. At trial, the State stipulated that from 2010-11 through 2014-15, if the State hadn’t frozen and cut state education funding, the eight districts would have received $1.1 billion more in state school aid than they actually received. This aid gap triggered severe cuts to essential teachers, support staff and other resources. At trial, the State conceded that student outcomes in the districts were unacceptable, and student performance would have improved had the districts received the required levels of state funding.
Despite the overwhelming trial record, the trial court dismissed the case in September 2016. The court declined to examine the evidence, as required by court precedent. The trial court’s decision was appealed and argued on September 5, 2017. The parties await the appellate ruling. Court documents can be found here.
ELC and ACLU of New Jersey are representing advocacy and civil rights groups in a challenge to New Jersey’s recently amended regulations governing high school graduation. The new rules replace the previous eleventh-grade graduation exit exam with separate Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) tests in English Language Arts (ELA10), administered in tenth grade, and Algebra I, given in the grade in which a student takes the corresponding course.
The lawsuit contends that the regulations conflict with the state graduation statute, which requires a single graduation exam in eleventh grade, and fail to provide opportunities for retesting and access to an alternative assessment as required by law. In addition, the suit claims that the use of “substitute tests,” including fee-based exams such as the SAT and ACT, violates the education guarantee in the New Jersey Constitution and has a disparate negative impact on Black and Latino students and English language learners. The case is now fully briefed before the NJ appeals court, and ELC is awaiting oral argument.
In 2016, ELC, the ACLU of Michigan and the White & Case law firm filed a class-action lawsuit in federal court on behalf of parents and students in Flint, Michigan, challenging systemic violations of special education law. The lawsuit alleges the defendants – state and local education agencies – are failing to identify students with disabilities, not providing them with required special education programs and services, and violating student rights in the school discipline process. These failures are compounded by the city’s lead-poisoned water crisis, which has put all Flint children at risk of a disability,
In August 2017, ELC’s Chief Trial Counsel, Greg Little, argued before the federal district court in Detroit on behalf of plaintiffs and in opposition to defendants’ motions to dismiss the complaint on procedural grounds. The district court also recently allowed plaintiffs limited discovery on crucial issues regarding the Flint district’s obligation to locate and evaluate all students with disabilities.
This consolidated appeal challenges the NJ Education Commissioner’s 2016 decision to approve a massive expansion of charter school enrollments in Newark over the next five years. The Commissioner authorized seven Newark charters to expand by 8500 students, including 6,000 students in schools operated by KIPP (Team Charter Schools) and Uncommon Schools (Northstar Charter Schools). The expansion, when completed, would increase charter enrollment to 50% of all Newark students.
ELC, on behalf of students attending the Newark Public Schools (NPS), contends that the Commissioner failed to evaluate data and research submitted by ELC demonstrating that the expansion will drain funding and deplete essential resources from NPS schools, thereby exacerbating the district’s chronic budget deficits. ELC also contends that the expansion will perpetuate and worsen existing patterns of student segregation by disability, limited English proficiency and race. ELC maintains that the failure to evaluate these issues violates well-established court precedents interpreting the education guarantee and the prohibition on racial segregation in the NJ Constitution. These precedents require the Commissioner to assess whether the charter expansion will harm educational opportunity for district students and worsen existing patterns of student segregation. Briefs have been filed, and ELC is awaiting oral argument.
Cases We’re Watching
ELC is closely watching several education rights cases in which we have filed Amicus Curiae, or “friend of the court,” briefs:
1) Cruz v. Guzman: This Minnesota case contends that the intense racial and socio-economic segregation in Minneapolis area schools violates the education guarantee in the state constitution.ELC joined with many of the nation’s leading education rights scholars in arguing the case should be allowed to proceed to trial. The Jones Day law firm is co-counsel on the amicus brief.
2) CJEF v. Rell: The Connecticut Supreme Court is reviewing a widely criticized 2016 trial court ruling on school funding. ELC’s amicus brief argues that the trial judge applied a narrow and improper standard for evaluating the resources required for a constitutionally adequate education. The trial court acknowledged the evidence of resource deprivations, particularly resources for at-risk students, and that these deficits negatively impact student achievement, but then concluded Connecticut need only provide the bare minimum of facilities, teachers and instrumentalities of learning to the state’s neediest students.
3) Wm. Penn School District v. PA Department of Education: The Pennsylvania Supreme Court is reviewing a lower court decision dismissing a challenge to state school funding as a “non-justiciable” political question under the education guarantee in the state constitution. ELC and several organizations filed an amicus brief arguing that the constitutional claim is justiciable because the enactment of substantive academic and performance standards by the state legislature provides the courts with “judicially manageable standards” to evaluate the sufficiency of school funding. The Jones Day law firm is co-counsel on the amicus brief.
Abbott v. Burke Update
ELC serves as counsel to the plaintiff class of students in 31 high poverty urban districts in the landmark Abbott v. Burke education rights litigation. The many legal milestones enshrined in the Abbott decisions include: adequate K-12 funding linked to the delivery of state academic standards, the nation’s first court ruling requiring high quality preschool for at-risk three- and four-year-olds, and a remedy for State facilities financing and construction to ensure buildings are safe, not overcrowded and educationally adequate. The Abbott decisions on K-12 funding led to the enactment of a new school funding formula in 2008, the School Funding Reform Act (SFRA).
In 2016, Governor Chris Christie filed a motion with the NJ Supreme Court to scrap the SFRA, the state’s model weighted student funding formula. At the same time, the Governor was traveling the state to tout his plan to redistribute state school aid equally to all districts without regard to student need or local fiscal capacity. The Governor’s plan would have reversed 30 years of effort to achieve fair funding for all New Jersey students, an accomplishment that has yielded solid gains in student outcomes and placed the Garden State among the nation’s leaders in education performance.
ELC vigorously opposed the Governor’s motion. In late January 2017, the NJ Supreme Court issued Abbott XXII, flatly rejecting the Governor’s arguments. This court victory cleared the way for the Legislature to approve a $150 million increase in state aid for FY18, including $25 million for preschool expansion as required by the SFRA. This represented the first formula increase since Governor Christie took office in 2009.
Education Law Center Press Contact:
Policy and Outreach Director
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