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Connecticut Court Considers: What Is A Good Education?

Lawsuit Revolves Around Words In State Constitution

By ARIELLE LEVIN BECKER, Courant Staff Writer

April 23, 2008

Simon Bernstein sat in the front row of the courtroom Tuesday as state Supreme Court justices, an assistant attorney general and two law students grappled over the meaning of his words.

Back in 1965, Bernstein had been largely responsible for crafting an article added to the state constitution guaranteeing "free public elementary and secondary schools." A former Hartford alderman and Bloomfield school board member, Bernstein's experience with local school funding debates had convinced him of the need to make education a fundamental right.

"I thought I was giving a simple clear statement without any unnecessary words that could be misinterpreted," said Bernstein, now 95 and a retired judge.

But on Tuesday, the exact meaning of those words were up for debate as the state Supreme Court heard arguments in a lawsuit challenging the way the state funds education.

The lawsuit was brought against the state on behalf of 10 families with children in public schools and the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding, a group of education and municipal organizations.

It claims that the state fails to maintain a suitable and substantially equal education system by providing inadequate resources and conditions for education in many school districts, leaving students unprepared for jobs or continuing education and likely politically and socially marginalized.

They are seeking a wholesale revision of the way the state funds public education, although the lawsuit does not spell out specifics.

In September, Superior Court Judge Joseph M. Shortall ruled that the state constitution does not mandate a minimum standard of quality for public education, leaving no room for the court to address it.But representatives for the plaintiffs in an appeal argued that the right to education outlined in the constitution implies an adequate education. David Noah, who argued on behalf of the plaintiffs, questioned what the purpose of a fundamental right to education would be if it did not provide students with the opportunity for gainful employment or higher education.

"However you define it, the fundamental right to education has to have content," said Noah, one of 14 Yale law students who are handling the case pro bono under the supervision of Professor Robert Solomon.

Noah cited a range of statistics, including literacy rates in Bridgeport and dropout rates in Hartford, to suggest that schools are not fulfilling any minimum standard of education quality. He also noted that courts in many other states have held that students have a right to an adequate or sound education.

But Assistant Attorney General Gregory D'Auria, representing the state, said the constitution leaves school matters to the legislature, not the courts, and that education of a particular quality is not an enumerated right in Connecticut.

"The right is to free public schools," he said.

The Horton v. Meskill lawsuit established the right of Connecticut students to a substantially equal education, and the justices asked D'Auria whether equal implied some sort of quality. D'Aurio argued that while equality is a right, quality is not.

"So as long as it's equally bad, it's OK?" Justice Joette Katz asked.

"If it's equally bad, the democratic process should and will correct that," D'Auria said.

"If it's equally bad," Justice Flemming L. Norcott noted, "then there's not much to the fundamental right."

Bernstein did not address the court Tuesday, but he submitted a brief supporting the plaintiffs. Back in 1965, he said, he had a "decent" education in mind something that would prepare students for jobs or college. But even today, he said, he would not want to spell out what is required under the right to education, because he is not an educator.

And Bernstein said he did not believe his intent was of prime importance. The wording was intended to allow each generation to interpret it appropriately to the time. Today, he said, schools are in far worse condition than they were in 1965.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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