K-12 public schools in Connecticut enroll about 570,000 students, with 30% in poverty, 5% learning English, 36% minorities, and annual expenditures a little over $8 billion. (Most recent NCES data)
The parties are preparing for a 2014 trial in Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding (CCJEF) v. Rell, in which the Connecticut Supreme Court held, in 2010, that the state constitution gives all Connecticut schoolchildren the right to a suitable education, and remanded the case for trial. In1977, the court held that Connecticut students are entitled to equal enjoyment of the right to education.
A 2008 settlement in the longstanding Sheff v. O'Neill desegregation case requires the state to take steps to improve integration in Hartford schools.
In early 2013, the state filed another motion to dismiss, in CCJEF v. Rell, claiming that “comprehensive reforms” enacted in 2012 rendered the case moot, and that the case is not yet ripe because the “reforms” have not had enough time to “take hold.” Plaintiffs filed a reply brief in opposition, noting that the 2012 changes were “nominal.”
In 1977, in Horton v. Meskill, the Supreme Court of Connecticut declared education to be a fundamental right, held that public school students in the state are entitled to equal enjoyment of that right, and concluded that the state’s school funding system, which depended primarily on local property taxes without significant equalizing state support, was unconstitutional. The court left the remedy to the legislature, which enacted a plan to address the inequities.
In 1996, in Sheff v. O'Neill, the supreme court concluded that the existence of extreme racial and ethnic isolation in the Hartford public school system deprived schoolchildren of a substantially equal educational opportunity in violation of the state constitution’s anti-segregation provision.
A 2003 settlement in Sheff v. O'Neill required the state to increase the percentage of Hartford students attending integrated schools to 30% by 2007. After the state failed to reach that benchmark, plaintiffs returned to court, and a new 2008 settlement requires the state to build more magnet schools in Hartford and expand the number of spots for Hartford students in public schools in the surrounding suburbs.
In its 2005 complaint, CCJEF v. Rell plaintiffs alleged that Connecticut schoolchildren are being denied suitable and substantially equal educational opportunities, in violation of the State Constitution, due to the state’s flawed school funding system. Considering a motion to dismiss, the trial court found that the state constitution does not create a right to a “suitable” educational opportunity, and therefore dismissed most of the complaint in 2007. Only the “equal educational opportunities” claim remained. Plaintiffs appealed.
In 2010, the Connecticut Supreme Court reversed the trial court’s opinion, concluding that the constitution requires the state to ensure adequate educational standards and resources to prepare students for participation in democratic institutions as well as employment and/or higher education. The court remanded the case, instructing the trial court to determine whether the standards and resources for public education in Connecticut are adequate.
"There shall always be free public elementary and secondary schools in the state. The general assembly shall implement this principle by appropriate legislation." Conn. Const. art. VIII, § 1.
In Horton v. Meskill, the Supreme Court of Connecticut held that under the state constitution, “the right to education is so basic and fundamental that any infringement of that right must be strictly scrutinized.” 376 A.2d 359, 373 (1977). The court further held that public school students are entitled to substantially equal educational opportunity, id. at 375, but noted that “absolute equality or precisely equal advantages are not required and cannot be attained except in the most relative sense. Logically, the state may recognize differences in educational costs based on relevant economic and educational factors and on course offerings of special interest in diverse communities.” Id. at 376.
In Horton III, the court held that:
“educational financing legislation must be strictly scrutinized using a three-step process. First, the plaintiffs must make a prima facie showing that disparities in educational expenditures are more than de minimis in that the disparities continue to jeopardize the plaintiffs' fundamental right to education. If they make that showing, the burden then shifts to the state to justify these disparities as incident to the advancement of a legitimate state policy. If the state's justification is acceptable, the state must further demonstrate that the continuing disparities are nevertheless not so great as to be unconstitutional. In other words, to satisfy the mandate of Horton I, a school financing plan must, as a whole, further the policy of providing significant equalizing state support to local education. However, no such plan will be constitutional if the remaining level of disparity continues to emasculate the goal of substantial equality.” 486 A.2d 1099, 1107 (1985) (internal citations omitted).
In Sheff v.O’Neill, the court noted that “the scope of the state's constitutional obligation to provide a substantially equal educational opportunity is informed and amplified by the highly unusual [state constitution provision] that prohibits segregation not only indirectly, by forbidding discrimination, but directly, by the use of the term "segregation."” 678 A.2d 1267, 1281 (1996). The court concluded that these provisions, considered together, “permit a state constitutional challenge to substantial disparities in educational opportunities resulting from racially and ethnically segregated public schools.” Id. at 1285.
In CCJEF v. Rell, the court held that “article eighth, § 1, of the state constitution embodies a substantive component requiring that the public schools provide their students with an education suitable to give them the opportunity to be responsible citizens able to participate fully in democratic institutions, such as jury service and voting, and to prepare them to progress to institutions of higher education, or to attain productive employment and otherwise to contribute to the state's economy.” 990 A.2d 206, 215 (2010).. The court further concluded that the education article:
“entitles Connecticut public school students to an education suitable to give them the opportunity to be responsible citizens able to participate fully in democratic institutions, such as jury service and voting. A constitutionally adequate education also will leave Connecticut’s students prepared to progress to institutions of higher education, or to attain productive employment and otherwise contribute to the state’s economy. To satisfy this standard, the state, through the local school districts, must provide students with an objectively ‘‘meaningful opportunity’’ to receive the benefits of this constitutional right.” Id. at 253.
The court further “agreed with the New York Court of Appeals' explication of the “essential” components requisite to this constitutionally adequate education, namely:
- "minimally adequate physical facilities and classrooms which provide enough light, space, heat, and air to permit children to learn”
- “minimally adequate instrumentalities of learning such as desks, chairs, pencils, and reasonably current textbooks”
- “minimally adequate teaching of reasonably up-to-date basic curricula such as reading, writing, mathematics, science, and social studies”; and
- “sufficient personnel adequately trained to teach those subject areas.”” Id.
There are no court decisions relating to state-funded pre-K. However, in the pending CCJEF school funding case, the plaintiffs’ complaint asserts that full-day kindergarten and high quality preschool are educational inputs that are "essential components of a suitable educational opportunity." Though the complaint does not specifically request it, it is anticipated that the plaintiffs will ask the court to require the state to make full-day kindergarten and voluntary pre-K available to all children.
Education Law Center, along with other organizations, submitted an Amicus Brief in CCJEF v. Rell which discussed the meaning of the state’s education article and the role of the courts in enforcing the state’s duty under that article, using decisions from courts in other states for guidance.
Connecticut’s School Readiness program serves only 13% of all 4 year-olds and 7% of all 3 year-olds and is rated 6 out of 10 on the established quality indicators.
The Connecticut legislature has explicitly recognized the value of high quality pre-K education in preparing all children for school and reducing special education services and grade retention. "The Connecticut State Board of Education believes that all children should have the experiences and opportunities that are necessary for them to achieve in school, and therefore supports the goal of providing all of Connecticut's children with a preschool experience."
The School Readiness Program provides grants to existing public and private pre-K programs to provide services to eligible low-income children ages 3 to 5. Grants are available in “priority” districts and other schools with severe need based on poverty. Priority school districts are determined based on population and percentage of children receiving federal Temporary Assistance to Needy Families.
The Connecticut Department of Education requires that at least 60% of children enrolled in a School Readiness program have family incomes at or below 75% of the state median income. A program may also reserve 5% of its slots for children who are 5 and have been in the program for a year but are determined not to be ready for kindergarten.
School Readiness programs can be provided through public schools, Head Start, and private and faith-based child care centers. The program may be full-time and full-year, part-time, part-year, or school day, school year.
Through the Department of Social Services, Connecticut also funds a program serving children up to age 5. To be eligible to participate in the program for free, children must come from families with household incomes less than 75 percent of the state median income. Families’ incomes are analyzed every six months to increase the fee in the event of a significant increase in income.
There are two separate funding streams for the School Readiness Program. First, a grant program for “priority” school districts allocates funds based on the number of children enrolled in the district’s kindergarten program and the percentage of children eligible for free or reduced lunch.
Second, "severe need" schools—towns with a priority school that are not designated as a priority district, or towns identified as one of the 50 lowest wealth ranked towns in the state --may apply under a competitive grant program.
School Readiness programs charge a sliding-scale "family share" fee.
Connecticut also supplements Head Start programs and offers “enhancement” grants to priority school districts to improve pre-K quality or comprehensiveness.
According to the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), Connecticut served 13% of all 4-year-olds and 7% of all 3-year-olds in its state preschool program in 2008-2009.
Connecticut reached 6 out of 10 benchmarks in the 2008-2009 school year and has been consistent with this standing.
The 6 benchmarks reached were:
- Early Learning Standards
- Requirement that teachers have specialized training in pre-K education
- Class size limits of 20 students
- Class ratio of 1:10 or better
- Screening/referral and support services
- Monitoring/Site visit program
The 4 benchmarks not met were:
- Teacher must have Bachelor’s degree
- Assistant teacher must have a Child Development Associate credential, or equivalent
- Teacher in-service (15 hours)
- Requirement to provide at least one meal a day
Connecticut requires an annual evaluation of all School Readiness Programs.