Connecticut Makes it Hard for Poor Students to Escape Standard Public Schools; Sued Over Practice

Students Matter, the group behind California's Vergara suit, asserts laws making it harder for poor kids to get into magnet or charter schools violates a federal right to education.


The day after their California state lawsuit attempting to overturn various student-damaging rules regarding the firing of teachers, Vergara v. California, was declined by the California Supreme Court, the group Students Matter filed a federal lawsuit against aspects of the state of Connecticut's education practices.

Students Matter website

The suit is called Martinez v. Malloy. The suite challenges the legitimacy of the following state laws:

  • Moratorium on New Magnet Schools: Connecticut has instituted a moratorium on new magnet schools (Public Act No. 09-6, 22; Public Act No. 15-177, § 1), despite the fact that Connecticut's magnet schools consistently outperform inner-city traditional district schools.
  • Cap on Charter Public Schools: Connecticut's laws governing charter public schools (Conn. Gen. Stat. §§ 10-66ee(c)-(d), 10-66bb(a), 10-66bb(g)) prevent high-performing schools from opening or expanding in the State, despite the fact that Connecticut's few charter public schools consistently outperform inner-city traditional district schools.
  • Open-Choice Enrollment Penalties: Connecticut's inter-district Open Choice enrollment program ( Gen. Stat. §§ 10-266aa(c), 10-266aa(e), 10-266aa(f), 10-266aa(g), 10-266aa(h)) penalizes school districts that accept students from inner-city school districts, thus dooming the viability of the very program designed to provide Connecticut's students with quality public school options.

It is the suit's contention that those laws:

limit the educational opportunities available to Connecticut's students, forcing thousands of poor and minority students to attend traditional district schools that the State knows are consistently failing to provide students with a minimally acceptable education….

As a direct result of these Anti-Opportunity Laws, low-income and minority children in Connecticut's poorest communities are resigned to a devastating game of chance that effectively determines their odds of success in life, based on nothing more than the ZIP codes in which their parents reside…..

Connecticut has no possible justification for intentionally subjecting poor and minority children to such unequal and unfair treatment. Where—as here—the State knows that it is not providing, and cannot provide, substantially equal educational opportunities to inner-city children, then it must not stand in the way of feasible options that would significantly improve the quality of their lives….

Through these pernicious laws and policies, Connecticut knowingly and without any rational justification "heavily burden[s]," Bullock v. Carter (1972), and "substantial[ly] . . . dilute[s]," Reynolds v. Sims (1964), the fundamental due process and equal protection rights of Connecticut students, in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Plaintiffs ask this Court for a simple declaration that would have immeasurable benefits for many thousands of children: By forcing Plaintiffs and thousands of other students to attend public schools that it knows are failing, while impeding the availability of viable public educational alternatives through the Anti-Opportunity Laws, Connecticut is violating students' federal due process and equal protection rights….

As Students Matter's press release announcing the suit sums up:

Plaintiffs describe the heartbreaking struggle they have endured trying to enroll their children in schools that provide an adequate education. Year after year, these parents have tried to avoid sending their children to failing public schools by trying to enroll them in magnet schools, charter public schools, or other adequate public school alternatives.

But year after year, the children have been denied admission and forced to remain in failing schools, all because Connecticut's laws prevent high-quality public schools from scaling and meeting the need for high-quality schools demanded by Connecticut's student population. "Hardworking Connecticut families must not be forced to send their children to failing schools," said Jessica Martinez, mother of one of the student-plaintiffs in Martinez v. Malloy. "Because of rules that benefit the status quo, instead of students and parents, the schools getting it right and meeting the educational needs of our students are effectively prevented from expanding.

As urban parents, we have to work ten times as hard, be ten times as engaged, and be ten times as savvy about the system to give our children even a slim chance of getting into a quality school. Connecticut's laws hurt and impede, rather than help us."

Frankie Frances, father of another student-plaintiff, further explained: "Plain and simple, getting an adequate education in Connecticut depends on luck of the draw. Do you live on the side of the street zoned for a good school or on the side zoned for a bad school? Will your child win the lottery and get taken off of a waitlist? That's the reality in which we live. It's time for the state to justify to parents why it has created a system where some students get access to quality schools, and other kids—our kids—get the waitlist. Access to a quality school is every child's right – and the State of Connecticut needs to stop infringing that right."

The suit details some of Connecticut's failures:

In 2012-2013, a shockingly high 38,967 students in Connecticut were trapped in chronically failing schools—schools with SPI scores of 50 or less. [SPI is "The School Performance Index…ranges from zero to 100, with 100 being the best performance, and zero being the worst. The target for schools is at least 88 on this scale…The statewide average, however, was just 67—far below the State's benchmark."]

Even worse, nearly 90% of the children attending these chronically failing schools are children of color and children living in poverty, and nearly all of these schools are concentrated in five cities—Bridgeport, Hartford, New Britain, New Haven, and Waterbury.

Roughly 30% of the students in Hartford School District, for example, are trapped in schools categorized by the State as a Turnaround or Focus school. In the New Haven School District, the situation is no better—more than 31% of New Haven students are stuck in these failing schools. Worst of all, nearly half of the students in Bridgeport School District are stuck in Turnaround or Focus schools. In these and other school districts, entire classrooms of students are being left behind, each and every day. In one Connecticut grade school, for example, only 28 out of 286 children over a six-year period were able to read at or above grade level by the 3rd grade.

At another Connecticut grade school, over a four-year period, only one in fifteen 3rd grade students could read at or above grade leve….The Plaintiffs' experiences in Connecticut's education system illustrate and exemplify this pervasive chronic failure. Each of the Plaintiffs has attended, currently attends, or will soon attend, an underperforming traditional district school.

The plaintiffs hope to win based on an argument, which from my read of the filing seems to be something for which there is no clear and direct precedent, that education should be treated as an unenumerated fundamental right under the U.S. Constitution according to a test set forth in 1997's Glucksberg case, since:

education has deep roots in our nation's history as a critically important state function, has been consistently offered and regulated by states and the federal government, is susceptible to careful definition and description, and "'prepares individuals to be self-reliant and self-sufficient participants in society.'" Yoder, 406 U.S. at 221. Under Glucksberg and Obergefell, both equality of educational opportunity and access to a minimally adequate education should—indeed, must—be recognized as fundamental rights .

Yoder, quoted above, is a case in which the Supreme Court decided that Wisconsin could not demand that Amish children keep attending public schools past 8th grade. The majority opinion was slightly orthogonal to the argument the plaintiffs seem to want to make here, based in essence on the lack of essential need for American kids to keep going to public schools past 8th grade, though the Court's reasoning was not against the vital importance of public education in general, but merely an extra couple of years of it for teens.

It's easy to imagine that a victory that establishes education as an unenumerated fundamental right could prove quite expensive to American taxpayers in future cases seeking less salubrious outcomes. (That is, the outcome sought in this case seems unobjectionable; the basis for their argument could be quite mischievous.)