Staples High School, Westport, CT
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Connecticut Families File Suit to Expand School Choice Options

A group of Connecticut parents has filed a federal lawsuit against the state claiming “inexcusable educational inequity and inadequacy” in school choice options.

The parents, in a 71-page complaint filed Tuesday, allege that the state has forced poor and minority students to attend under-performing schools by putting a moratorium on the creation of new magnet schools and by limiting how many may attend charter schools. They also allege the state has perpetuated inequity and penalized students by setting per pupil funding levels on a program called Open Choice that allows urban students to attend better suburban schools — all in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

The lawsuit, Martinez v. Malloy, was filed on the parents’ behalf by Students Matter, a California educational advocacy group founded in 2010 and led by David F. Welch, a tech industry entrepreneur.

“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 lawsuit claims. “Yet, at the same time, Connecticut has taken steps that prevent these poor and minority children from having viable public-school alternatives — knowingly depriving low-income and minority schoolchildren of the vital educational opportunities available to their more affluent and predominantly white peers.”

The lawsuit decries what it calls Connecticut’s “Anti-Opportunity Laws,” arguing that “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. They are forced to shoulder the crippling burden of an inferior and inadequate education — an unwarranted penalty that substantially undermines the most fundamental precepts of liberty and equality. And, as a direct result of the Anti-Opportunity Laws, they will fall further and further behind their peers, with little or no chance of ever breaking free from the state-sanctioned chains that bind them.”

The Connecticut Department of Education defended its programs and its educational record in a statement from spokeswoman Abbe Smith.

“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.”

But plaintiff Jessica Martinez, whose son Jose, 13, attends one “underperforming traditional district school” decries her family’s fate. She has repeatedly applied to get her son into a better school and each time has failed.

“Hard-working Connecticut families must not be forced to send their children to failing schools … As urban parents, we have to work 10 times as hard, be 10 times as engaged, and be 10 times as savvy about the system to give our children even a slim chance of getting into a quality school,” she said in a statement.

Jonathan Butcher, education director at the Goldwater Institute in Phoenix, Arizona, calls the Connecticut case “courageous.” He believes it has broader implications nationwide where families and students face similar inequities in education.

“The impact nationally is very big, and I hope it is taken state to state,” Butcher told American Media Institute. “I think having that challenge out there is important. ... Usually school choice advocates are on defense. Now, with this case, this gives them a chance to go on offense.” 

The lawsuit names as defendants Gov. Dannel Patrick Malloy, state education department chief Dianna Wentzell, state comptroller Kevin Lembo, state treasurer Denise Nappier, and Secretary of State Denise W. Merrill.

The governor's spokesman did not return AMI's calls asking for comment.