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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