Litigating for resources for high-need students 

Saving money concept

 

Three recent cases address schools’ responsibility to educate all children by adequately funding their schools. 

 

Three cases decided in July 2018 from different jurisdictions highlight the struggle to garner resources for school districts with high concentrations of high-need children. Each case has a different legal theory, but they all are trying to address recent declines in educational resources coupled with increasing demands for services and supports. Public schools across the nation have struggled with scarce resources particularly since the Great Recession forced a wave of state budget cuts, and many states have shifted state education funding to private schools. In these cases, the plaintiffs argue that their states are not living up to their responsibility to their children. 

These cases are an extension of a line of state finance adequacy cases. For New Mexico, the state constitutional right to an education is established. In Minnesota, the plaintiffs are using the state constitutional right to an adequate education to call into question both funding and segregation. And in Michigan, plaintiffs abandoned the state constitutional path and sought relief in federal court, asserting a right to literacy. 

New Mexico 

In 2014, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund brought suit on behalf of parents and children to establish that education is a state constitutional right and to ensure meaningful opportunities for all children. The New Mexico Constitution states:  

A uniform system of free public schools sufficient for the education of, and open to, all the children of school age in the state shall be established and maintained. (N.M. Constitution, Article XII § 1) 

In Martinez v. State of New Mexico (July 2018), the state district court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, finding that school districts were provided with inadequate resources, including instructional materials, curricula, and personnel. The court decided that the state must provide the essential resources to deliver a reasonable curriculum that would provide at-risk students the opportunity to compensate for any educational barriers they may face. These resources could include full-day preK, summer school, after-school programs, small class sizes, and research-based reading programs. In sum, the court held that inadequate school funding violated the education article of the state constitution as well as the state constitutional equal protection and due process rights of economically disadvantaged students, English language learners, and Native American students. The court was not persuaded by the state’s defense of lack of resources, noting, “The remedy for lack of funds is not to deny public school children a sufficient education, but rather the answer is to find more funds.”  

This case fits the pattern of many school finance cases (i.e., adequacy cases) where the plaintiffs allege that the state has violated the students’ rights by not providing sufficient resources to fulfill the state’s obligation under the educational clause in the state constitution. But this was the first school finance or right to an adequate education case in New Mexico.  

 

Minnesota 

In November 2015, a group of Minneapolis-area parents filed suit in state court saying public schools are largely segregated by race and socioeconomic status and that a “segregated education is per se an inadequate education” in violation of the Minnesota Constitution, which says: 

The stability of a republican form of government depending mainly upon the intelligence of the people, it is the duty of the legislature to establish a general and uniform system of public schools. The legislature shall make such provisions by taxation or otherwise as will secure a thorough and efficient system of public schools throughout the state. (Minn.  Constitution, Article XIII, § 1)  

The Minnesota Supreme Court had previously found that this clause created a state constitutional right to an adequate education in Skeen v. State (Minn. 1993). But in Cruz-Guzman v. State of Minnesota, the trial court dismissed the case, finding that the issues raised were so political in nature that they should be decided in the state legislature, not reviewed by a court. The Minnesota Supreme Court overturned that decision (Minn. 2018) and held that a court could rule on whether the Minnesota Legislature violated its duty to schools and children under the Minnesota Constitution.  

Specifically, the court held: 

(1) the courts are the appropriate domain for determinations as to whether the Legislature has violated its constitutional duty under the Education Clause;  

(2) the Education Clause creates a fundamental right to education that is subject to strict scrutiny; and  

(3) it is the courts’ responsibility to determine what the constitution requires and whether the legislature has fulfilled its constitutional obligations.  

Note that the Minnesota Supreme Court did not entertain the primary substantive issue in this case — whether an education system largely segregated by race and socioeconomic status violates the Minnesota Constitution. That issue is likely to come forward later as this case progresses.  

Michigan 

A recent case from Detroit takes a different angle on this issue. Here, plaintiffs assert that the state has not done enough to ensure that Detroit students reach an adequate level of literacy and that this failure violates students’ federal constitutional rights to due process and equal protection.  

This case represents a shift in lawsuits related to the constitutional right to an education and school finance cases about an adequate education. First, it was filed in a federal court, asserting a federal constitutional violation. Since the 1970s, such challenges to state funding systems and claims of failure to provide students an adequate education have been filed in state courts, focusing on state constitutions. This is because the U.S. Supreme Court has not recognized a federal constitutional right to an education. (See a short review of these cases in my February 2018 Kappan column.) 

In Gary B. v. Snyder (E.D. Mich. 2018), the federal district court judge dismissed the plaintiffs’ claim. In his decision, the judge reviewed previous U.S. Supreme Court cases and discussed the question of whether there was a federal constitutional right to education. Noting that the Supreme Court is reticent to expand the list of fundamental rights under the Constitution, he held that there is no fundamental right to education under the Due Process Clause and that there has not been a move toward recognizing education as a fundamental federal right since state courts have found the right to a minimum level of education in the requirements of their state constitutions.  

Another new development within this case is the argument that students have the right not just to equitable access of educational resources, but to the educational outcome of literacy. In response to the plaintiffs’ argument that there is a constitutional right to literacy through the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment, the judge reasoned that the Supreme Court’s understanding of a “fundamental right” requires finding that neither an individual’s liberty nor justice would exist without state-provided literacy access, which would be “difficult to square with the fact that ‘[t]here was no federal or state-run school system anywhere in the United States as late as 1830.’” 

Personally, I believe the judge shorted this right to literacy argument. It seems that he addressed the “right to education” twice and ignored the question of whether individuals have an inherent right to education as a necessary precursor to their other federal constitutional rights, particularly their rights as citizens.  

The Fourteenth Amendment states:  

All persons born or naturalized in the United States . . . are citizens of the United States. . . No State shall make . . . any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws. 

We often turn to the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause and the Equal Protection Clause to assert individuals’ affirmative rights (e.g., rights to liberty or privacy), to protect against state intrusion on or removal of individual’s rights (e.g., the process necessary before taking away individual property or liberty), and to deal with individuals in an even-handed manner. But the Fourteenth Amendment includes the broader concept of the rights of citizenship (i.e., “the privileges or immunities of citizens”). Without an education that confers adequate literacy, it is difficult if not impossible to exercise such rights of citizenship as voting, running for office, or serving on a jury. 

A quote attributed to Thomas Jefferson sums this up nicely: “An enlightened citizenry is indispensable for the proper functioning of a republic. Self-government is not possible unless the citizens are educated sufficiently to enable them to exercise oversight. It is therefore imperative that the nation see to it that a suitable education be provided for all its citizens.”   

 

Citation: Underwood, J. (2018). Under the law: Litigating for resources for high-need students. Phi Delta Kappan, 100 (2), 66-67.  

 

JULIE UNDERWOOD (Julie.Underwood@wisc.edu) is the Susan Engeleiter Professor of Education Law, Policy, and Practice at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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