By Wendy Lecker
The crucial role of school finance lawsuits has increased with the need to provide adequate funding and resources to enable public schools to address the impact of COVID-19 on the nation’s students. Given the new reality, Education Law Center, as the legal defense fund for education rights, will continue to inform advocates, teachers, parents, policymakers and other public school supporters of developments in existing and new litigation.
At least nine states have pending legal challenges to the failure to adequately fund public education. Below is an update on three of those cases in Delaware, Illinois, and New Mexico.
Delawareans for Educational Opportunity v. Carney
On May 8, 2020, Vice Chancellor J. Travis Laster of the Court of Chancery ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in Delaware’s first-ever educational adequacy school funding case. The case, brought by two organizations, Delawareans for Educational Opportunity (DEO) and the NAACP Delaware State Conference of Branches (NAACP), charges that the State severely underfunds public education in violation of the constitutional rights of poor and disadvantaged students, and that the manner in which Delaware counties assess property values impedes school districts’ ability to levy taxes and receive their fair share of State school funding.
The plaintiffs are represented by the ACLU of Delaware; the Community Legal Aid Society, Inc; and the law firm Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer LLP. The City of Wilmington intervened as a plaintiff in the county track case.
In November 2018, Vice Chancellor Laster refused to dismiss the case. The court also bifurcated the claims into a county track, to address the taxation issues, and a state track, to address State underfunding.
After a two-day trial in July 2019 on the county tax claim, the May 2020 ruling found Delaware’s three counties improperly assessed property values in violation of the uniformity clause of the Delaware constitution, which requires equal treatment of taxpayers residing in the same tax district.
In addition, the court ruled the DEO, the NAACP and the City of Wilmington had standing to bring the lawsuit. At trial, several public school parents testified to the harm endured by their children as a result of inadequate resources in their schools. Notably, the court held that the failure to provide an adequate education to disadvantaged children harms all children in the district. Further, the NAACP had standing to sue by demonstrating that it had to divert resources from other activities in order to fight for educational equity. Moreover, as the NAACP is so closely associated with that cause, “people regard the NAACP-DE as bearing a share of the responsibility for the state of Delaware’s schools.” Thus, school underfunding has resulted in reputational harm to the organization.
The court also ruled that plaintiffs had standing “as appropriate parties to raise constitutional and statutory issues of substantial public importance.”
The court ordered all parties to submit a schedule for development of a remedy for the counties’ unconstitutional failure to assess uniform property taxes for public education.
Cahokia Unit School District No. 187 v. Pritzker
On April 17, 2020, in a split decision, the Appellate Court of Illinois affirmed a lower court case dismissing a school funding complaint brought by 21 school districts. That complaint, filed in May 2018, alleged that the State persistently underfunds schools in violation of the Quality Education Clause of the Illinois Constitution.
In July 2018, the State moved to dismiss the case, and in October 2018, the trial court granted the State’s motion, ruling that the case was not justiciable. The court based its ruling on a 1996 Illinois Supreme Court decision, Committee for Educational Rights v. Edgar, which held that the “quality of education” was “not capable of or properly subject to measurement by the courts.” The Appellate Court affirmed this decision.
However, Justice Wharton dissented, writing that the majority applied Edgar’s holding too broadly, noting that, when Edgar was decided, the Legislature had not determined what constituted a “quality education.” However, in subsequent years, legislation required the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) to establish academic standards – the Illinois Learning Standards – which prescribe what all Illinois students should know in each subject in each grade. The Legislature also requires annual student assessment aligned to those standards. As a result of these developments, Justice Wharton concluded that the Legislature has “determined the education students must receive” and, as a result, “courts no longer need to make that determination in order to resolve claims that students in under-resourced districts are not receiving the high quality education mandated by our State constitution.”
This dissent followed similar reasoning employed by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 2017, when it ruled that the claims of plaintiffs in the current school funding suit, William Penn School District v. Pennsylvania Department of Education, were justiciable. Like Illinois, Pennsylvania had a 1990’s era Supreme Court precedent holding that school funding claims under that state’s constitution were not justiciable. But in William Penn, the court declined to follow the ruling as it was an “artificially narrow account of how a court may go about reviewing Education Clause challenges.”
The plaintiffs are expected to appeal the Appellate Court’s ruling to the Illinois Supreme Court.
Martinez v. State/Yazzie v. State
On May 1, 2020, plaintiffs in a landmark school funding lawsuit opposed the State of New Mexico’s March 2020 motion to dismiss the case and end court oversight. In July 2018, after a trial in the consolidated cases of Martinez v. State and Yazzie v. State, Judge Sarah Singleton found that, by underfunding the public schools, the State violated the rights of “at-risk” students (economically disadvantaged students, those learning English, Native American students, and students with disabilities) under that state constitution’s education article.
In February 2019, Judge Singleton issued a final order and judgment directing the State to ensure schools the resources necessary to give at-risk students “the opportunity to obtain a uniform and sufficient education that prepares them for college and careers” by reforming New Mexico’s school finance system. The reforms must provide “as soon as practicable” every public school “the resources, including instructional materials, properly trained staff, and curricular offerings, necessary for providing the opportunity for a sufficient education for all at-risk students.” The court retained jurisdiction to effectuate all the relief granted in the case.
In March 2020, the State moved to end the court’s continuing jurisdiction, contending it had “substantially complied” with the court’s ruling by increasing funding and making various changes to the State’s program and accountability requirements.
In reply, the Yazzie plaintiffs argued the State has only made “scattershot” changes nowhere near compliance with the court’s order. The plaintiffs detailed the myriad areas the State has failed to remedy the constitutional violations, including instructional materials and technology, teacher quality, curricula, and services for Native American students, English Language Learners, students with disabilities and low-income students. They noted that the State itself admits that some of the changes are merely pilot programs or subject to future funding. The Yazzie plaintiffs submitted statements from Tribal Nations across New Mexico opposing the State’s Motion.
The Yazzie plaintiffs pointed out that in other state school funding cases, such as Kansas, New Jersey, and Washington, courts maintained jurisdiction not merely during the states’ initial steps toward compliance but until those states substantially remedied the constitutional defects. Similarly, the plaintiffs maintain that continuing judicial oversight is essential to ensure New Mexico’s constitutional compliance.
A hearing on the State’s motion will be held on June 29.
Wendy Lecker is a Senior Attorney at ELC.
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