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After a Connecticut judge called his state’s school funding system “irrational” and “unconstitutional,” an eleven-year-old school funding lawsuit is now headed to the state supreme court for final adjudication.
In 2005, a coalition made up of municipalities, parents and education advocacy groups and calling itself the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding filed a lawsuit against then Connecticut Governor Jodi Rell claiming that the state of Connecticut was failing to meet its constitutional obligation to provide the state’s children with the quality education.
The coalition argued that the state government was failing to provide cities and towns with adequate educational funding, thereby forcing school districts to rely on local property tax revenue to fund schools. The resulting inequities created a system in which wealthy towns provided their schools with adequate resources while poorer towns lacked the funds necessary to ensure children had access to appropriate educational opportunities.
Connecticut Democratic Governor Dannel Malloy, who was once a proponent, and even a plaintiff in the case, reversed his long-standing support for additional state funding upon becoming Connecticut’s governor in 2011 and, along with Democratic Attorney General George Jepsen, was able to postpone the trial on the CCJEF v. Rell case for an additional five years.
This year, the case finally want to trial, and on September 7, 2016, Judge Thomas Moukawsher issued his post-trial decision, and ignited a firestorm.
Although the judge ruled that Connecticut’s funding system was, in fact, unconstitutional, he noted that the problem was not insufficient funding but how the money was actually distributed.
Judge Moukawsher also used his decision to condemn Connecticut’s public schools and demand that the legislative branch of government adopt an extensive array of corporate education reform initiatives, including the use of more standardized testing and a teacher evaluation system based on how well students do on those standardized tests.
Moukawsher opined that Connecticut’s special education laws needed to be rewritten, and should take into consideration his observation that some students who receive special education services should not be provided those services because they are essentially un-teachable.
The non-funding aspects of the judge’s decision generated widespread calls for an appeal.
A number of key public school advocates, including the state’s teacher unions, have also decried Judge Moukawsher’s opinion as it relates to what should be an adequate level of state funding.
Attorney Wendy Lecker, an expert on school funding cases and an educational blogger in Connecticut, summarized the situation as it related to school funding:
“On the funding front, the outcome was mixed. While the judge did declare Connecticut’s system of distributing school aid unconstitutional, he found that the state was providing adequate funding. In doing so, he redefined constitutional adequacy and ignored the plaintiffs’ overwhelming evidence of resource deficiencies.”
At trial, the plaintiffs put forth overwhelming evidence of severe resource deficiencies of inputs such as: academic and social intervention for at-risk students and students with special needs; guidance counselors, social workers, nurses, services for English Language Learners, music, art and other subjects, and reasonable class size.
Judge Moukawsher’s charge was to examine the resources in the districts at issue in the case and determine whether those resources were so inadequate as to violate Connecticut’s constitution.
But nowhere in his opinion does the judge systematically look the actual resources present or absent in each district.
Rather, the judge focused only on three types of resources: facilities, instrumentalities of learning, and teachers. He declared that since, in his view, the state provides the “bare minimum,” in these three areas, the plaintiffs did not prove that state funding is constitutionally inadequate.
Judge Moukawsher’s decision ignored the wide range of essential educational resources absent in the CCJEF districts. In fact, the judge actually claimed that intervention for at-risk children was an “extra.”
As a result, his ruling does an injustice to the children suffering in those districts.
Moukawsher created a bare-bones definition of constitutional adequacy that the Connecticut Supreme Court clearly did not envision.
The one ray of light in this funding decision is Moukawsher’s finding that the state’s system for distributing school aid is unconstitutional. He ruled that “(b)eyond a reasonable doubt, Connecticut is defaulting on its constitutional duty to provide adequate public school opportunities because it has no rational, substantial and verifiable plan to distribute money for education aid and school construction.”
To illustrate Connecticut’s irrational system, Moukawsher cited the legislature’s decision last session to cut school aid for poor districts while providing more aid for wealthy districts.
Here, the judge finally acknowledged the severe resource deficits caused by these cuts: of administrators, guidance counselors, kindergarten and special education paraprofessionals, music and athletics, a shortened school year and classes of “twenty-nine children per room—rooms where teachers might have a class with one-third requiring special education, many of them speaking limited English, and almost all of them working considerably below grade level.”
The judge declared that a system that “allows rich towns to raid money desperately needed by poor towns makes a mockery of the state’s constitutional duty.”
The judge gave Connecticut six months to create a new funding system that applies “educationally-based principles to allocate funds in light of the special circumstances of the state’s poorest communities.”
Connecticut’s attorney general has announced that he will appeal the decision to the Connecticut Supreme Court.
The plaintiffs are also likely to appeal, seeking to have the state supreme court overturn the aspects of the judge’s decision in which he seeks to legislate education reform initiatives from the bench.
The upshot of the recent developments in Connecticut is that, as in so many other states across the nation, Connecticut’s public school students, parents, teachers and public school advocates are hoping that the judicial branch of government will move to force the legislative and executive branches to provide adequate funding for public schools.
Jonathan Pelto is an investigative blogger and citizen journalist working to educate, persuade and mobilize people on issues related to public education.