September 7, 2016, The New York Times

On November 22, 2005, fifteen Connecticut students and their families brought an action in the Hartford Superior Court challenging the constitutionality of Connecticut’s education system. The Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Educational Funding filed CCJEF vs. Rell as a project for Yale Law School students.

Last Wednesday, Hartford Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher issued a 90-page decision calling the state’s system of education funding “irrational” and asserting that it violated the constitutional rights of students. He gave the state 180 days to propose new funding formulas. Even if the attorney general successfully appeals the decision to the Supreme Court, the Connecticut legislature will likely be required to take some action as a result of this Superior Court decision.

Mouskawsher, at the beginning of the decision, wrote:

It is for the General Assembly to decide how much to spend on schools, but the state must at least deploy in its schools resources and standards that are rationally, substantially, and verifiably connected to teaching children. […] Many of our most important policies are so befuddled or misdirected as to be irrational. They lack real and visible links to things known to meet children’s needs.

The National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) rates Connecticut’s schools among the best in the country. NAEP (known as the “nation’s report card”) shows that Connecticut’s fourth and eighth graders have the highest average reading scores in the country. Nevertheless, NAEP also found that poor Connecticut students performed worse than poor children in 40 other states. Today’s New York Times offers this bleak comparison between the Bridgeport and neighboring suburban Fairfield school districts.

Judge Moukawsher said that the current system “has left rich school districts to flourish and poor school districts to flounder,” violating the State Constitution to give children a “fair opportunity for an elementary and secondary school education.”

The state has faced a punishing fiscal crisis this year, resulting in layoffs and spending cutbacks. That led the General Assembly to cut state education aid to some of the poorest districts, with more than $905,000 cut from Bridgeport, and more than $600,000 cut from New Haven. Comparatively wealthy districts got more money: Branford, a New Haven suburb, got a funding increase of $300,000.

Connecticut’s public schools, like those in most states, are financed through a combination of local property taxes and federal and state money; however, the breakdown varies from national averages. The majority of funding is local (58 percent), supported by state funds (38 percent). Federal revenue composes only about four percent of school funding in Connecticut, about half the national average. The reason for the low percentage of federal spending is that Connecticut’s local and state allocations place it fifth in the nation in total per-pupil public education spending.

Funding formulas are supposed to address and amend disparities. Even when the state and underfunded school districts are enduring severe budget cuts, the state still held to its practice of favoring affluent towns.

“An approach that allows rich towns to raid money desperately needed by poor towns makes a mockery of the state’s constitutional duty to provide adequate educational opportunities to all students,” Judge Moukawsher wrote.

The judge’s far-reaching ruling is also as much about school reform as it is school funding. The state is ordered to create new standards for completion of both the elementary and high school, including the creation of a graduation test. The state is also ordered to revise its system of evaluating teachers, principals and superintendents. These one-size-fits-all mandates may erode the flexibility of the state and individual school districts to comply with the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act. This ruling will also place significant pressure on the state legislative and executive branches of government responsible for setting education policy in Connecticut.

“Nothing here was done lightly or blindly,” Moukawsher said, reading his entire 90-page decision from the bench, a highly unusual undertaking that took close to three hours. “The court knows what its ruling means for many deeply ingrained practices, but it also has a marrow-deep understanding that if they are to succeed where they are most strained, schools have to be about teaching children and nothing else.”

NPQ writes frequently about issues like these that persist in many states, such as the recent Kansas Supreme Court ruling that the state’s school funding schema is unconstitutional. Here are graphs that show how children in poor school districts score an average of more than four grade levels below children in the richest districts. The analysis also reveals that the largest achievement gaps between white and poor minority students exist in the wealthiest communities.

Many education reform advocates and others, especially poor families, are grateful for Judge Moukawsher’s bold and scathing ruling. The decision has the potential to profoundly reshape public education in Connecticut. If the ruling stands as written, changes in school financing, school graduation requirements, and teacher evaluations will ensue.

Only time will tell whether the state will comply with or appeal the decision. New Haven attorney David Rosen, who directed the Yale law students and wrote some of the motions in this 11-year old case, with the support of pro bono attorneys at Debevoise & Plimpton, now has 60 days to “weigh in” on the state’s willingness to obey the judge’s order.

Meanwhile, the state’s capacity and willingness to give all children their constitutional right to an adequate education hangs in the balance.—James Schaffer