Law School clinic helps battle state over education funding

A group of attorneys and Yale law students teamed up on Monday to battle the state over Connecticut’s education standards.

The group, Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding, filed a case against the state in 2005 challenging the adequacy of Connecticut’s education system. The case has been dragged through the legal system for eight years and finally came before a judge at a hearing Monday, when the state attempted to have the case dismissed and to limit the scope of permissible evidence. At the end of the day, those defending CCJEF felt that they had competently answered the judge’s questions, and said they hope their arguments brought the case one step closer to trial.

“We felt really good after the hearing was over, and we are cautiously optimistic that the judge will rule in our favor,” executive director of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities Jim Finley said after Monday’s hearing. Finley recently filed an affidavit in support of CCJEF’s claims.

When the case first began in 2005, it was ruled that CCJEF had no standing because there were no harmed parties filing the lawsuit. The team then regrouped and scored a victory in 2010 when the state decided that all public school students do have a right to an effective and meaningful education.

The coalition now hopes to go to trial in order to prove that Connecticut’s education policies do not meet legal standards. On Monday, the state attempted to block that from happening by arguing that the case should be dismissed since the state’s education system is not the same as the one that was originally challenged in 2005.

The state also argued that the court should adopt the standards that Justice Palmer outlined in his 2010 opinion, which would limit the scope of evidence allowed in the trial.

Defending the state’s argument at the hearing on Monday was Darren Cunningham, the Connecticut assistant attorney general.

“The state’s duty to provide education is owed to the students and their parents standing in their shoes,” Cunningham said. “It’s not owed to the municipalities or boards of education or any of the other groups that are members of CJEFF.”

But representatives from CCJEF said that the two motions rest on flawed arguments.

“Multiple lawyers have told me that the procedural claims lack genuine legal merit. And as an educator I can tell you that that they certainly lack any substantive merit,” said CCJEF founder and project director Dianne deVries.

The motion to dismiss was based on the claim that significant improvement has been made to the education system since the lawsuit was filed in 2005. But both deVries and Rachel Dempsey ’09 LAW ’15, a Yale Law School student working on the case, said that while some money has been added to the state’s education budget, the additions are still far from adequate.

The hearing on Monday, along with prior developments in the case in the past, have been heavily influenced by the work of students at Yale Law School, who established a state clinic in 2004 and agreed to represent the CCJEF v Rell case pro-bono. For the past nine years, over 200 Yale Law students have been involved in the case, in capacities ranging from researching to arguing before the Connecticut Supreme Court.

It was only last year that Debevoise & Plimpton LLP, a law firm based in New York, joined the plaintiff team to help lead the case to trial. DeVries refers to the cohort of Yale Law Students and Debevoise attorneys as “The Dream Team,” and said that the partnership has created an unprecedented opportunity for mutual learning.

The plaintiffs’ ultimate goal at trial is to adequately and equitably fund Connecticut public schools and give all children equal access to educational opportunities. Currently, Dempsey said, there are significant problems with the education system resulting from a lack of adequate funding. Rachel said that she has visited public schools across Connecticut where textbooks are out of date and computers — that students are expected to use as learning tools — are not functional.

“Students just don’t have the basic resources they need. These issues need to be addressed comprehensively in court,” she said.

The trial is tentatively scheduled for July 2014.

Correction: Sept. 18

A previous version of this article mistakenly stated that Yale Law students have argued the case before the U.S. Supreme Court, when in fact they have argued it before the Connecticut Supreme Court. 

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