ILNews

Courts can review public school financing

Michael W. Hoskins
January 1, 2008
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Hoosier courts have the authority to review the state's school financing formula to determine whether Indiana is meeting a constitutional requirement to provide a quality public education for all students, the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled May 2.

A 2-1 ruling from the COA revives the public education financing case of Joseph Bonner, et al. v. Mitch Daniels, et al., No. 49A02-0702-CV-188, which presents an issue of first impression. Nine public school students and their families from eight different school systems throughout the state filed the class-action suit in 2006, claiming the school funding formula violates the Indiana Constitution's Education Clause. They contended it didn't provide enough money for all children to have a fair chance to learn. Defendants named are Gov. Mitch Daniels, the state's Superintendent of Public Instruction Suellen K. Reed, and the Indiana Board of Education.

Plaintiffs brought their case under the Indiana Declaratory Judgment Act, claiming the legislature-approved school funding formula that's implemented by the education board violates the guarantee set out in the state constitution.

"Although most other states have already determined the issues presented for our review, never before has an Indiana court been requested to answer Bonner's questions," Judge Patricia Riley wrote, noting that only five haven't considered the issues. "The vast majority of courts in our sister states have concluded that this cause is justiciable and that state constitutions impose enforceable duties on the legislative and executive branch to provide a quality education to public school students."

In January 2007, former Marion Superior Judge Cale Bradford - who's now an appellate judge - granted a motion from the state to dismiss the suit, ruling that school funding is a political question that's not appropriate for the courts. His five-page trial court ruling said that such decisions did not lend themselves to a likely judicial remedy and that he couldn't order a remedy out of respect for separation of powers.

Appellate Judge Ezra Friedlander agreed with the trial court, writing in his dissent, "While we may find [the legislature's appropriations decision] to be intolerable, we would find it even more intolerable for the judicial branch of government to invade the power of the legislative branch. In my view, this is exactly what this court is asked to review in this case - an appropriations decision by the legislature."

But appellate Judges Riley and John Sharpnack disagreed, issuing a 38-page majority opinion that delved into the constitution's history and an array of similar cases from across the country. They determined that the defendants were appropriately named in this case and the plaintiffs had standing to sue. The opinion includes a comprehensive analysis on the judicial review applicability.

The judges determined that Bonner has made a cognizable claim that can be considered by the court, and that if plaintiffs can submit proof of the claim, then a court can grant a declaration that the General Assembly hasn't discharged its constitutional duty.

In its ruling, the court relied on caselaw dating back more than a century to show that Hoosier courts have long been in line with a philosophy from the U.S. Supreme Court to reject notions that the judiciary shouldn't take action on issues because elected branches of government might not comply. The court noted that it's not being asked to establish a new system of education funding but rather determine whether the legislature is meeting its constitutional obligation.

"Clearly, as shown, the Education Clause is subject to judicial enforcement," Judge Riley wrote.

"We hasten to add that it is not our intention to intrude upon the prerogatives of other branches of government," she wrote. "We were not appointed to establish educational policy, nor to determine the proper way to finance its implementation. We leave such matters to the two co-equal branches of government: it is for the Legislature and the Governor to fulfill their responsibility with respect to defining the specifics of, and the appropriate means to provide a public education, which should instill in Indiana's children the knowledge and learning essential for today's workplace."

The decision remands the case to the trial court to determine whether Indiana's current public school system, through its funding, provides Hoosier students with an adequate education "as envisioned by the framers of our Constitution."
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  2. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  3. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

  4. Diversity is important, but with some limitations. For instance, diversity of experience is a great thing that can be very helpful in certain jobs or roles. Diversity of skin color is never important, ever, under any circumstance. To think that skin color changes one single thing about a person is patently racist and offensive. Likewise, diversity of values is useless. Some values are better than others. In the case of a supreme court justice, I actually think diversity is unimportant. The justices are not to impose their own beliefs on rulings, but need to apply the law to the facts in an objective manner.

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