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  September 12, 2016
 
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COURT DECLARES CONNECTICUT EDUCATION SYSTEM VIOLATES STATE CONSTITUTION

On September 7, Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawser issued his post-trial decision, in Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding (CCJEF) v. Rell, finding that the state was not fulfilling its duty under the state constitution to provide children with a fair opportunity for a high school education, and ordering the state to submit remedial proposals within 180 days.

The court articulated a constitutional standard that requires the state to provide funding and resources to meet student need. The court wrote that "the state must at least deploy in its schools resources and standards" substantially rational and connected to teaching children and "things known to meet children's needs."

The court concluded that many of the state's education policies are irrational. "For instance," the court observed,

the state spends billions of dollars on schools without any binding principle guaranteeing that education aid goes where it's needed. During the recent budget crisis, this left rich schools robbing millions of dollars from poor schools. ... Instead of the state honoring its promise of adequate schools, [it] has left rich school districts to flourish and poor school districts to flounder ... [and] the system cannot work unless the state sticks to an honest formula that delivers funding according to local need.

Despite these statements, however, the court articulated and followed "a low constitutional threshold," based on its understanding of the plurality plus one (4-3) CCJEF remand order from the Connecticut Supreme Court. But, the court appears to have missed much of the supreme court's instruction and failed to fulfill its expectation that the trial court would flesh out the resources needed to meet the supreme court's broad constitutional resource standards.

The supreme court also wrote that the trial needed "to determine as a question of fact whether the state's educational resources and standards have ... provided the public school students in this case with constitutionally suitable educational opportunities." Moreover, the supreme court cited repeatedly to sister state courts, especially New York, that had accomplished these goals as trial court guidance, which the court does not seem to have followed.

At trial, the CCJEF plaintiffs presented 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, nurses, programs to teach English Language Learners, music, art and other subjects; and reasonable class size, among others.

The trial court concluded that the "evidence certainly shows that thousands of Connecticut students would benefit from" programs addressing their needs. However, the court held that "the very existence" of some of these programs, no matter their limited funding and availability, means the state exceeds the "bare constitutional minimum" standard.

Separately, the court dismissed the State's claim that local school districts bore the responsibility for education, not the state. The court quoted Connecticut Supreme Court holdings: "Obviously, the furnishing of education for the general public is a state function and duty," and " ... in Connecticut, education is a fundamental right," raising education to the most important level known to law.

Bridgeport and other poor towns

The court used Bridgeport as an example of the concentrated poverty and educational deprivations in Connecticut's 30 low-wealth towns.

The court's recitation of the challenges in Bridgeport is chilling. Unemployment is high, incomes are low, the property tax rate is double that of most nearby towns, and all 21,500 students are eligible for free lunch. The schools have less than the statewide median per pupil funding to spend on their high-need students. The court further summarized

Administrators, clerks, guidance counselors and technicians are being shed. Kindergarten and special education paraprofessionals are being let go. Some schools have no extras [sic] like music and athletics left to cut. The school year is to be shortened. Class sizes are increasing in many places to 29 children per room -- rooms where teachers might have a class with one third requiring special education, many ... speaking limited English, and almost all ... working considerably below grade level.

Unsurprisingly, the court found that educational outcomes follow deprivation. No state's low-wealth students score lower than Connecticut's. Ten are at the same low level, and 40 state's poor students score higher, "including," the court wrote, "children in places like Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana."

The court reported that "while plaintiffs were in court complaining of the lack of a principled [funding] system, the legislature started moving money from poor towns to rich ones." In May 2016, the state cut $5 million from its poorest town's education funding and sent it to relatively wealthy towns. The state told the court that "$5 million isn't much money," but the court declared that "there are no millions to be diverted in the face of financial circumstances that are choking Connecticut towns to death."

After this jarring report, the court ordered the state to submit within 180 days a remedial school funding formula that "must apply educationally-based principles to allocate funds in light of the special circumstances of the state's poorest communities." But, the court did not order essential resources and programs for these towns' thousands of students, even though the state has the duty to provide them a fair opportunity for a high school education.

Will the remedial order lead to fair funding and essential resources that actually meet the needs of these students?

"These proceedings have shown how Connecticut's high-poverty school districts have been getting short-changed," said Herbert Rosenthal, President of CCJEF. "Today's decision marks the first step toward ensuring all students have meaningful opportunities to become college- and career-ready."

Preschool, teaching, and special education

The court reported that

if there was any one thing in the trial that stood out as good ... policy it was the need for universal high-quality preschool. Witnesses for both sides agreed that high-quality preschool would be the best weapon to get ahead of the literacy and numeracy problems plaguing schools in impoverished cities.

But, the court failed to order it.

In striking contrast, the court took deep dives into education policy regarding teacher evaluations and students with disabilities. The court ordered policy changes for teachers and other educators that are controversial and have been proven ineffective, even harmful. That part of the court's order may lead to negative impacts on educators and students and a lowering of educational quality, especially in Connecticut's high-poverty communities.

Also, many will find the court's extensive discussion of students with disabilities and funding for their services troubling. The court indicated that funding for students with severe or multiple disabilities was irrational and not connected to "education" if they were not capable of receiving an elementary and secondary education.

In summary, the Court ordered the state defendant to propose remedial measures, within 180 days, on the following subjects:

  • the relationship between the state and local government in education
  • an educational aid formula
  • a definition of elementary and secondary education
  • standards for hiring, firing, evaluating, and paying education professionals, and
  • funding, identification and educational services standards for special education.

Here is a link to the trial court ruling, which is a 254-page pdf. Or, cut and paste: http://www.jud.ct.gov/CCJEFvRell.pdf

Education Law Center Press Contact:

Molly A. Hunter

Education Justice, Director

mhunter@edlawcenter.org

973-624-1815, x 19

 
     
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