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Federal lawsuit seeks to establish a constitutional right to education

Marcellus McRae, plaintiff’s co-lead counsel with Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, at the lectern, is joined by members of Students Matter in Los Angeles on June 10, 2014. (Damian Dovarganes/AP)
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An advocacy group best known for using the courts to challenge California’s teacher tenure laws has now taken its legal strategy to Connecticut, where it has sued state officials over “anti-opportunity” laws that restrict the growth of magnet and charter schools and that limit inner-city students’ ability to transfer to more affluent suburban school districts.

The California-based group Students Matter argues that those limitations trap thousands of poor and minority children in terrible schools that are failing according to Connecticut’s own rating system, violating what should be considered a right to education under the U.S. Constitution. Federal courts have never recognized a fundamental right to education, but the plaintiffs argue that they should do so now.

“The fundamental principles of equality in our country demand that every child have a chance to get an education, to learn and to have that platform to succeed,” said Theodore J. Boutrous Jr., an attorney for the plaintiffs.

The lead plaintiff in the case is Bridgeport resident Jessica Martinez, whose 13-year-old son, Jose, attends a low-performing traditional public school. As with many children, Jose has entered lotteries for admission to higher-performing magnet schools, but has never been lucky, according to the complaint.

Connecticut’s attorney general has not yet been served with the complaint, said spokeswoman Jaclyn M. Falkowski. “We will review any complaint that is filed and respond at the appropriate time in court,” she wrote in an email, declining to comment further.

Abbe Smith, a spokeswoman for the Connecticut Department of Education, responded to the lawsuit with a statement: “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. It’s a record to be proud of — and a record that we continue to build on each and every day.”

Students Matter, founded by Silicon Valley entrepreneur David Welch, previously mounted a legal challenge to California laws that — the organization argued — left disadvantaged children to be taught by ineffective teachers who were all but impossible to fire.

California Supreme Court decision leaves state’s teacher tenure laws in place

It was a novel approach to dismantling tenure protections, a major battle front in the wars over education reform — and one more commonly fought in statehouses than in courts. And it appeared at first to be successful when, in 2014, the trial court sided with the plaintiffs.

But an appeals court reversed that decision in April, and this week, the state’s high court declined to hear the case, leaving the tenure laws in place. Teachers unions — framing the lawsuit as a union-busting effort bankrolled by billionaires — claimed victory.

Welch said Tuesday that while he was disappointed in that outcome, he was pleased with the way the tenure challenge — known as Vergara v. California — had generated debate over reforming tenure laws both in California’s legislature and in education and policy circles nationwide.

And he said he hopes the Connecticut lawsuit has the same rippling effect.

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