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Justices dismiss public school funding case

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Even if Indiana's public school system falls short of where it should be in providing quality education, courts aren't constitutionally able to set standards or establish a financing formula because that's a task falling solely to the General Assembly.

The Indiana Supreme Court issued its 4-1 ruling today in the public education financing case of Joseph and LaTanya Bonner, et al. v. Mitch Daniels, et al., No. 49S02-0809-CV-525, which involves an issue of first impression asking justices to interpret the state constitution on public education financing.

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 were Gov. Mitch Daniels, the Indiana Board of Education, and Tony Bennett, state superintendent of public instruction.

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. Specifically, plaintiffs claimed that three constitutional clauses impose a duty to provide public school students with an education of satisfactory quality and that the state government had failed to do that.

The plaintiffs emphasized they weren't seeking a judicial mandate for any particular school funding system but rather wanted a judicial declaration that the current system "falls woefully short of the requirements of the Indiana Constitution."

The trial court had dismissed the case and a Court of Appeals panel last year reversed that dismissal, finding that the courts could review that formula to determine if Indiana is meeting a constitutional requirement to provide a quality public education for all students.

But a majority of the justices disagreed, with Justice Brent Dickson writing for the majority.

"Although recognizing the Indiana Constitution directs the General Assembly to establish a general and uniform system of public schools, we hold that it does not mandate any judicially enforceable standard of quality, and to the extent that an individual student has a right, entitlement, or privilege to pursue public education, this derives from the enactments of the General Assembly, not the Indiana Constitution," he wrote. "We conclude that the framers and ratifiers certainly sought to establish a state system of free common schools but not to create a constitutional right to be educated to a certain quality or other output standard."

To dismiss the case, justices relied on Indiana Trial Rule 12(B)(6) that permits dismissal for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.

Justice Robert Rucker dissented, saying that he doesn't know if plaintiffs would prevail at the trial court level on the merits or survive summary judgment, but that to "say in effect that plaintiffs have not presented a justiciable issue is simply wrong in my view."

In his own concurring opinion, Justice Theodore Boehm agreed with Justice Rucker and noted that this provision does create a judicially enforceable standard that courts are able to analyze. But he ultimately agreed with the majority in writing that "the claim that our present system is inadequate is simply too amorphous for judicial resolution."

"In sum, the problems of Indiana's system of funding public schools may be as severe as the plaintiffs allege, but I see no reasonable prospect of a judicial remedy that would be effective and properly balance the many considerations involved in redesigning the state's educational system," he wrote. "The most the courts could order would be to direct the legislative and executive branches to go back to the drawing board and try again to construct an improved and constitutionally acceptable system of common schools. Because we are unable to articulate any clear or even vague direction as to what standards to apply in that endeavor, the courts should acknowledge that adequacy of education, like the level of taxation, is a matter the Constitution reserves to the legislative branch."

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