Two Yale Law School students will advocate for more than 600,000 Connecticut schoolchildren before the state Supreme Court in Hartford today.
For the two students in Yale’s Education Adequacy Clinic, David Noah LAW ’09 and Neil Weare LAW ’08, more than a year of work will culminate today as they present their oral argument in a case that will decide whether Connecticut’s constitution, which has guaranteed the right to an education since 1965, entails some baseline quality of education. The students will argue it does, on behalf of the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding, the lead plaintiff in the suit.
The state Supreme Court has previously read the constitution to include the right to equal educational opportunity — but some opportunities may be more equal than others, according to the students.
“Just equal could be equally poor,” said Brian Savage LAW ’09, another student in the clinic. The suit contends that there must be a minimum standard.
And in schools across the state, including in New Haven, where as many as half of students drop out and the majority read below their grade levels, that minimum is not being met, said Noah, who taught in New York City public schools before starting law school and currently works in New Haven public schools.
“To go into these schools, there are kids who, if given the opportunity, will do just as well, if not better, than the smartest and best and brightest of Greenwich,” he said. “But they’re not given that opportunity.”
For an education to be considered adequate, Noah said, high-school graduates should be able to pursue higher education, find work and be able to function as citizens.
“If students can’t do those things when they graduate, it’s not an education,” he said.
The case began with a 2005 complaint by 15 Connecticut students and their families. Their allies now include CCJEF, Yale Law professor Robert Solomon, the international-law firm Paul Weiss and the 95-year-old author of the constitution’s education clause, who filed a friend-of-the-court brief testifying that the students’ interpretation of the clause is consistent with the intended meaning.
Yale’s is the first law-school clinic to provide pro bono counsel in an education advocacy suit — a typically complex and labor-intensive kind of litigation. If similar cases in at least 20 other states are any indication, such trials can last 100 days, call 50 to 60 witnesses and include thousands of pages of documents, the students said.
For the families, mounting such an effort would be too expensive with a paid lawyer, so it would not be possible without the work of the clinic, the students said.
“This case wouldn’t be moving forward without the pro bono assistance of the clinic,” Weare said.
He and Noah expressed confidence in anticipation of today’s hearing, but they said their clients are a reminder of the weight of their case, which could mean a difference of hundreds of millions of dollars in education funding, Weare said.
“We don’t want to blow it,” Noah said. “A lot is at stake.”
It is the real consequences of their efforts that keep the law students motivated, they said. They are not just working toward an exam as in their other classes, so they find themselves spending a disproportionate amount of time on the case, Savage said. But, he added, they do not see it as work.
Preparation for today’s single hour of oral argument began in January, Weare said. He and Noah had to review thousands of pages and immerse themselves in every detail of the case before they were to face the five-judge panel today.
The clinic has given the law students professional experience that could not be matched in a traditional classroom setting, Savage said, but that is not why any of them got involved in the case.
“Whether or not we do right by the children of Connecticut is what we will remember most,” he said.
A decision in the case is expected over the summer.