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Spring 2024 Seminar

State Constitutional Litigation and Education Reform

Prerequisites: None

Exam Type: No Exam

Despite decades of education policy reform at both state and federal levels—including funding increases in many jurisdictions and a near-universal emphasis on rigorous academic standards—substantial achievement gaps persist in many states and localities. In particular, low-income students, students of color, students with disabilities, and English language learners continue to evidence lower levels of educational attainment across a range of indicators compared with their more affluent and White peers. Many state and district education systems fail to provide adequate and/or equitable access to educational opportunities that effectively prepare students to compete in the world of work and/or to understand, appreciate, and participate meaningfully in democratic institutions. The post-COVID workforce shortage and crisis in student mental health; the rapid proliferation of technological innovations, including the advent of AI; and the nation’s growing civic divisiveness together constitute an unprecedented set of challenges that complicate the question of how to envision and operationalize a 21st century education system that works for all learners. This seminar will explore and evaluate the potential role of state constitutional litigation as a strategy for pursuing public education reform that begins to address these manifold difficulties by fully (re)defining and enforcing all students’ right to a meaningful educational opportunity.

More specifically, the seminar will examine a number of state supreme court cases that have interpreted the education clauses in their respective constitutions to require that their states provide all children an “adequate” or “sound basic” education. Although these rulings have explored and articulated many educational concepts that constitute components of a meaningful educational opportunity, none have comprehensively specified the full range of resource inputs or educational outcomes that should constitute a baseline education in a democratic society. We will closely examine the written decisions in these cases to determine the extent to which their holdings contain helpful building blocks for articulating a contemporary constitutional theory of the right to a meaningful educational opportunity (as well as ways in which they are inadequate for addressing current and future challenges). We will also analyze portions of the evidentiary record in some of these litigations to gain insight on the types of evidence regarding student needs that courts have found persuasive. Orders and pleadings from the remedial stages of these cases will also provide valuable insights on how an updated and comprehensive right to a meaningful educational opportunity might actually be implemented. Through our close analysis of a limited number of cases, the seminar will provide students with the rare opportunity to get a good sense of how a constitutional litigation is conducted from pleadings through the trial and remedy stages.

Our analysis will necessarily take account of recent developments in federal law, particularly the Supreme Court’s decision in the Harvard/UNC cases, which arguably constrains states’ race conscious efforts to address educational inequities. We will look at federal cases dealing with gender equity, as well as the rights of English learners and students with disabilities, to consider whether they offer any alternative options for conceptualizing comprehensive approaches to educational equity.

Students will produce a research memo for the seminar’s final assignment and class participation will constitute a portion of the grade; there will be no final exam. Students enrolled in the Education Law Clinic: Strategic Litigation will be required to enroll in this seminar as a co-requisite for the clinic.