Saturday, July 22, 2017

What Does Adequate Education Mean and Who Decides

Jvonkorff on Education has been discussing Minnesota's statutory definition of educational adequacy, because adequacy plays an important role in two education litigations that are now in the appellate courts (Cruz-Guzman and Forslund).  The phrase "adequate education" is used at times imprecisely and loosely--As in, "American public schools don't adequately educate all students;" or "urban public schools aren't providing students with an adequate education;" or "my high school didn't give me an adequate education."    But in court cases, and especially constitutional litigations, words need to be used with more precision, and at times, even lawyers seem to use the word loosely.   The purpose of this post is to begin to explore the constitutional dimensions of the word "adequate" as it has evolved over the last several decades.  So in this and subsequent posts, I'm going to discuss what we mean when we say that the Minnesota constitution guarantees an adequate education system.  

Adequacy, in the legal  context has two substantive components.

  • The first is adequate educational quality:  is the output of the public education system of high quality.  
  • The second the creation of an adequate system, one that has the tools and resources sufficient to deliver adequate educational quality.  Most commonly, adequacy suits are trying to force the state to provide adequate funding to produce an adequate education, but as we shall see in subsequent posts, Cruz-Guzman and Forslund make no claim regarding the funding of public education.
Scholars, and ultimately courts, also debate the respective roles of the legislature, the executive branch (Governor and Education Department), local districts, and the Courts in defining the governing principles of adequate educational quality and in deciding whether the system has the tools and resources sufficient to deliver educational quality. The best reasoned constitutional decisions recognize that there is a shared responsibility among the branches of government to define educational quality and to create an adequate educational system.    

The concept of what is an adequate educational output has evolved since the Minnesota Constitution and other state constitutions first commanded the legislature to create a thorough, efficient, general and uniform system of public education.   In the1800's, the majority of our population engaged in agriculture, and that agriculture was of an entirely different character than today's modern agriculture. 

By the 1950's and 1960's the common understanding of the necessary education for students to thrive involved higher level reading, more mathematics and science.  Yet, still, a significant number of high school graduates could find productive decent paying work that would today be regarded as semi-skilled:  work on factories, mines, industry, transportation, and the construction jobs. 

By the 1980's, however, a national consensus emerged that the public education system was inadequately preparing many students.  The Minnesota legislature has published an excellent history of the resulting evolution of Minnesota academic adequacy standards in the Minnesota Issues series.  (Click on the link to read the entire document.  It begins:
Historically, Minnesota high schools awarded diplomas based on Carnegie units ("seat time requirements") or course credits completed by students. Critics maintained that this system provided no statewide standards on subject content and no statewide assessment of what students had learned.
This central fact is greatly underappreciated as we think about the second aspect of a Minnesota adequate education --- what tools and resources must be supplied to school districts in order to deliver an adequate education.  The framework of our modern public education system was devised to produce Carnegie units, to deliver a fixed number of hours of instruction.  When we changed to a more demanding system, very little attention was paid to the changes necessary to achieve the new state requirements, both in terms of funding and in terms of the ability to manage teachers, principals and other staff.

 In a seat-based system,  as it existed at the time that the Supreme Court decided Skeen v State (1993) the state mandates that each school district supply a certain amount of total "seat-time"  for all students, and it mandates as well, a certain amount of seat time in particular subjects, such as math, social studies, science, reading, the arts and so on. 

In a seat-based paradigm, public education delivered time in a chair, with a teacher at the front of the classroom.  The quality of the teaching and the curriculum was locally determined and locally adjusted.  If local schools were confronted with less prepared students, they could spend more to make up the shortfall, or they could adjust their graduation expectations downward accordingly.   Under the seat-based education system,  as it existed at the beginning of the 1990's, Minnesota lacked any state mandate regarding the degree of difficulty of the subjects taught to the students occupying those seats, nor any state mandate as to the level of educational proficiency that students must attain in order to be issued a high school diploma.   Under the seat based paradigm, costing public education was much simpler, because you can produce an hour of seat time for any student at the same price, regardless of the student's particular educational challenge. If the funding were reduced, you could increase class size, cut textbooks, and even lower the rigor of a school district's educational expectations without running afoul of state adequacy standards.  

That is why the plaintiff school districts in the Skeen case told the Minnesota Supreme Court that their districts were meeting state standards and that they were capable under the established system to provide all students with an adequate education..  

However, in the 1990's, Minnesota became a belated participant in a national movement to set education standards not on "seat time" but instead on what students actually learned.   This transition from seat time standards to learning based standards was motivated by several concerns.  First, there was a growing nationwide consensus that American students in general were not learning what they needed to learn to compete in the national and international economies.  Second, evidence suggested that students who came to school behind stayed behind, and actually fell further behind, notwithstanding their intellectual capacity to learn.   The seat time standard provided no incentive, let alone a state mandate, to catch those students up and educate them to their full potential.   Everybody was receiving the same number of hours of  teaching, and the result was to maintain or exacerbate the gaps in achievement.  

 These concerns, partly prodded by the national No Child Left Behind legislation, led to a series of legislative education standards in which the state transitioned to a proficiency based system.    We've described some of these laws in previous posts:  (Worlds Best Workforce; Special Education; Academic Standards Law; Curriculum Content Stadards.)   Now, that leads us to a number of questions, some of which are resolved differently in different states,  but which are critical to implementation and enforcement of the constitutional protections found in our Constitution:

  • Assuming that the Constitutional education clause is enforceable, what is the relationship between the state's education standards and the right to an adequate education?  When the state legislature shifted from a seat-time based system to a proficiency based system, did that elevate the standards by which to measure the constitutional adequate education?  Or, could a legislature hostile to the concept of public education eviscerate the statutory requirements, and decide that local school districts, say, need only educate students to an 8th grade level of reading, math, and science.?   
  • Once the state has established new adequacy standards, may citizens harmed by failure to deliver an education sufficient to meet the standards use the constitution to seek judicial intervention.   Does it make a difference if the system established by the legislature delivers the state required proficiency to some students and not others? 
  • Suppose the legislature fails to provide school districts with the tools necessary to deliver an adequate education.  Is there a constitutional remedy, and if so, does it make a difference whether the standards are set by the judiciary in a constitutional case, or the legislature? 
  • May plaintiffs (like Cruz-Guzman and Forslund) identify a particular narrow feature of the education system that is inadequate, or do they only have a claim if the legislature's implementation is sweepingly inadequate?   
We'll address these and other points in coming posts.  

Past Series on Education and Constitutional law:

McCleary v. State, Part I   McCleary v State Requires Legislature to Base Funding on Actual Cost
Jvonkorff on Education McCleary v. State, Part II
McCleary v State and Determining the Cost of Education
Jvonkorff on Education McCleary v. State, Part III
 McCleary v. State: what level of scrutiny is appropriate for legislative funding decisions
Jvonkorff on Education McCleary v. State, Part IV
Correlating the cost of education: fund the child.
Jvonkorff on Education  McCleary V. State Part V
Summary of Decision Network for Excellence
Washington Supreme Court Blog  
JvonKorff on Education, The Rose Decision 
Minnesota's School Finance System is Unconstitutional, Part I
Minnesota's School Finance System is Unconstitutional, Part II
Minnesota's School Finance System is Unconstitutional, Part III
Minnesota's School Finance System is Unconstitutional, Part IV

No comments:

Post a Comment

comments welcome