New Jersey Court Dismisses Parents’ Lawsuit

Published January 1, 2008

A New Jersey trial court has dismissed a lawsuit by some parents of students in failing schools seeking school choice as a remedy.

The case, Crawford v. Davy, was filed as a class-action lawsuit on July 13, 2006 in Essex County. It was later transferred to Mercer County–where Trenton, the state capital, is located.

Trapped in Failing Schools

Plaintiff Van Ness Crawford is a widower and the father of three boys enrolled in Newark Public Schools. Before moving to Newark in 2005, the Crawford children had attended a Catholic school, but they could no longer afford to do so afterward.

Crawford and several other parents sued the state and 25 school districts in which fewer than half the students had met state proficiency standards, claiming the state was failing to meet its constitutional obligation of providing a “thorough and efficient education,” as well as violating the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Superior Court Judge Neil Shuster agreed on October 5 to a motion to dismiss the suit. In a 54-page opinion he agreed the plaintiffs could sue the schools in question, but he said they could not seek relief from the school districts because districts don’t have the power to offer it. Instead, he said, the state school board might be able to offer some remedy to the students.

Shuster wrote, “defendant-District Boards cannot unilaterally provide the relief sought by the Plaintiffs” and instead the state board “is the relevant legal entity for the issuance of relief.”

Claims Rejected

In essence, Shuster ruled the case is not “justicable”–meaning it’s a political question better suited for the legislature and executive branch to determine. He also rejected the plaintiffs’ claim that failing scores indicate a “thorough and efficient system” system of education was not being offered.

“It is not the function of this Court to substitute its judgment for that of the Legislature with respect to the rules it has adopted,” Shuster wrote. “[T]hese are exactly the type of policy considerations and concerns best considered by the Legislature.”

Shuster also rejected the plaintiffs’ claim that failing schools violate the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, because they could not show attempts to discriminate against them.

Appeal Filed

Patricia Bombelyn, the plaintiffs’ attorney, said an appeal was filed in November and more briefs will be filed in January.

“It will take some time for this case to be determined, and there will be much opposition because we have many adversaries,” Bombelyn said. “It might take until next fall, but I’d love to have it resolved sooner.”

Dan Gaby, executive director of Educational Excellence for Everyone (E3), a New Jersey school choice advocacy group, said in an October 15 podcast the decision lets stand a “constitutional denial of a thorough and efficient education.”

Support Is Widespread

Other school choice advocates agree with that assessment. In July 2006, while the case was still being argued, Clint Bolick–then president of the Alliance for School Choice in Washington, DC–wrote in The Wall Street Journal that the remedy the parents sought would “create a powerful catalyst for failing public schools to get their acts together.”

Former presidential contender Steve Forbes, writing on on September 4, 2006, said the case “could be the most important education lawsuit since Brown v. Board of Education,” because it “could ultimately make America’s K-12 school systems the finest in the world, enabling kids to get a sound education.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer, not usually a defender of school choice, editorialized in support of the lawsuit on August 20, 2006, saying it “aims to improve education, not destroy it” and that the lawsuit has merit because it is “targeted at children in failing schools.”

One month earlier The Courier Post, a newspaper serving the Camden area, and the Home News Tribune, a newspaper serving central New Jersey, also editorialized in support of the lawsuit.

Michael Coulter ([email protected]) writes from Pennsylvania.

For more information …

“Blasting the Blob,” by Steve Forbes,, September 4, 2006:

“Remedial Education,” by Clint Bolick, The Wall Street Journal, July 16, 2006: