Failing Schools in CT Drive Inner-City Parents to Court

     HARTFORD, Conn. (CN) — Licking its wounds from a court defeat in California, education advocates brought a federal complaint in Connecticut to take on a system that forces inner-city children into failing schools unless they win the charter school lottery.
     Backed by Silicon Valley entrepreneur David Welch, Students Matter held a press call Wednesday afternoon in conjunction with the filing of a lawsuit against Gov. Dannel Malloy and other Connecticut officials.
     The 71-page complaint says Connecticut has taken steps to prevent poor and minority children from having viable public school alternatives, and is knowingly depriving these students of educational opportunity “available to their more affluent and predominantly white peers.”
     With Bridgeport mom Jessica Martinez at the helm, the complaint also includes claims by a Hartford mom, a Bridgeport grandmother and a Bridgeport dad. All say it is unfair that the children in their care have been denied transfer to better-performing schools.
     “These inner-city children are compelled to attend public schools that the state knows have been failing its students for decades — consistently failing to provide even a minimally adequate education,” the complaint says.
     Martinez specifically flags John Winthrop School, where her 13-year-old son is enrolled, as “an under-performing traditional district school.”
     “Martinez v. Malloy is about taking away barriers created by the state that prevent access to opportunity,” Martinez said Wednesday. “It’s about giving parents and communities an opportunity to demand the quality education our children deserve.”
     Josh Lipshutz, an attorney for the families with the powerhouse firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, detailed the problem in the press call.
     “The state knows that this dichotomy exists, but it has taken actions that will force these students to attend failing schools,” Lipschutz said.
     Among several features of the Connecticut education system that the complaint takes aim is the 2009 moratorium on new magnet schools.
     Gibson Dunn is also challenging the cap on charter school expansion and the per-student funding formula that limits the number of districts participating in Open Choice, a program by which city students attend suburban schools.
     Ted Boutrous Jr., another attorney for the plaintiffs, noted during the press call that “it’s particularly cruel what’s being done to children” in Connecticut.
     “It’s like the dangling of these great schools that are within reach,” Boutrous said. “They’re there and instead the state erects these barriers to block access to them.”
     Gibson Dunn wants a federal judge to find that Connecticut is infringing on the federal constitutional rights of Connecticut children.
     The case could, Boutrous noted, could call into question the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision San Antonio v. Rodriguez, which held that the federal constitution does not guarantee a fundamental right to equal education.
     It the plaintiffs’ contention here that San Antonio v. Rodriguez cannot be reconciled with the developments of the past 40 years, and must not be used as an excuse to let states treat inner-city children as second-class citizens.
     “It’s one of the most fundamental attributes of our society,” Boutrous said of education.
     Historically, citizens have turned to the federal courts when states fail to protect the constitutional rights of citizens under their own constitutions and their own laws, Boutrous said, explaining why they chose to file the lawsuit in U.S. District Court.
     A spokeswoman for the Attorney General’s office said the state has not yet been served with the lawsuit and will respond at the appropriate time in court.
     Abbe Smith, a spokeswoman for the Connecticut Education Department, declined to address the specific claims of the lawsuit.
     “With record-high graduation rates, rising test scores in reading and math, more great school options for families than ever before, and greater resources going to public schools that need help the most, Connecticut is delivering more than ever on the promise of a public education for our students,” Smith said. “It’s a record to be proud of – and a record that we continue to build on each and every day.”
     Connecticut is already involved in another lawsuit regarding access to an adequate public school education, filed by the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding. Resolution of that lawsuit is expected in the fall.
     A representative for the coalition noted in an interview that their case “contends that the current K-12 public education finance system fails to meet state constitutional standards.”
     “The system is unconstitutional because it does not provide an opportunity for all our students, particularly our poor and minority students, to graduate high school ready to join the workforce, ready to seek higher education, and ready to be an active participant in civic life,” said Jim Finley, principal consultant to coalition. “The CCJEF case is about adequate and equitable opportunity for all students, those in traditional, magnet, charter and technical schools.”
     Students Matter, the California group behind today’s lawsuit, is the same one that just suffered defeat in the Golden State with a challenge against California’s teacher-tenure system.
     The Second Appellate District ruled earlier this year that the students challenging the system failed to show that the state provides a grossly inferior quality of education to certain groups.
     That decision reversed a watershed decision Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu had handed down in 2014. Treu found that five statutes in California’s education code were unconstitutional because they harm poor and minority students and reward bad teachers.
     Beatriz Vergara and eight other students behind the California challenge tried appealing, but the California Supreme Court denied their petition for review on Monday, leaving the state’s tenure laws intact.
     In Connecticut, U.S. District Judge Alvin Thompson will preside over today’s lawsuit.
     The head of Connecticut’s second-largest teacher union said Welch, the founder of Students Matter who has bankrolled at least three education lawsuits, claimed that “we know what works” in public education.
     AFT Connecticut President Jan Hochdel said that’s true, and it’s laid out in a bipartisan report on best practices released earlier this month by the National Council of State Legislatures.
     Yet the lawsuit filed Tuesday includes none of those recommendations and “does nothing that addresses the actual needs of Connecticut’s students,” Hochdel said.
     What the lawsuit does call for, Hochdell added, is expanding schools operated by outside charter-management companies.
     “That’s not in the NCSL report, and we know in Connecticut it’s not what works to assure a great quality education for all students,” Hochadel said.
     Asked Wednesday why he’s chosen to file lawsuits, instead of lobby lawmakers to make changes to the educational system, Welch said “the courts are a complete part of our governmental and political process.”
     Welch said the courts are there to “protect the rights of individuals and when the legislature repeatedly shows its inability to act in the best judgment of the rights of individuals then the courts need to live up to that responsibility.”
     Since 2009 there have been laws on the books in Connecticut, he noted, that “inhibit opportunities of children and have infringed the rights of children.”
     In that context, the courts have to play a role in protecting the rights of the children, Welch said.

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