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Funding Equalization Is Ordered Again for Connecticut Schools

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A Connecticut state judge has ruled that portions of the state's system of financing public schools remain unconstitutional, seven years after an earlier ruling by the state Supreme Court required state officials to reduce funding disparities that denied students equal educational opportunity under the state constitution.

A panel attacks federal school-finance reports. See story on page 12.

State Superior Court Judge Arthur L. Spada's April 24 decision orders the state to take appropriate corrective actions, including providing full funding for its aid program to local districts and eliminating a per-pupil flat-grant program that the high court had previously deemed unconstitutional. The judge also ordered the state to void its nonspecific curriculum laws and to mandate core subjects for all students instead. The ruling could cost the state an additional $13.5 million in aid to local schools in fiscal 1985 and pose serious financial difficulties for a number of the state's wealthy towns that would no longer receive per-pupil grants under the judge's orders, according to state officials.

For example, the town of Greenwich, which would have received about $1.9 million in equalization money next year, would receive no allocation at all based on Judge Spada's decision, according to state education officials.

Although the full impact of the court's ruling is still being assessed, state officials have had mixed reactions to the decision. In a 5-1 vote, members of the Connecticut Board of Education expressed concern about the judge's order to eliminate the state's curriculum statute and the timing of the decision, which comes after most towns have already established their school budgets

Gov. William A. O'Neill has said he will decide whether to file an appeal after the state department of education has completed a study of the impact of the decision on cities and towns.

Remedies Called Significant

Although the court's decision does not represent new legal doctrine, it does demonstrate the willingness of the courts to get involved in the enforcement of remedies designed to provide equal education opportunity, school-finance experts said.

John Augenblick, former director of the Education Finance Center of the Education Commission of the States, said only seven states have been ordered by the courts to take appropriate steps to ensure equal educational opportunity. "What makes [the Connecticut decision] important," he said, "is that when the court goes as far as it does and orders some remedy, it obviously means it, and wants to see something happen."

In Connecticut, where there is no state income tax, Mr. Augenblick said, the decision could force state officials "into a position that they will have to rethink their tax structure."

The ruling was in response to a suit filed nearly four years ago by the parents of two school-age children who argued that the state's failure to fully fund the "guaranteed tax base" program violated the superior court's original 1974 orders in the case, Horton v. Meskill.

The guaranteed-tax-base program, which established an equalization formula for distributing state aid to the schools, was enacted by the Connecticut General Assembly in 1979 and partially implemented a year later. It was intended to respond to the high court's mandate that Connecticut must ensure equal educational opportunity for all students. At that time, the legislature agreed to phase-in full funding for the program over a five-year period.

Flat Grants Illegal

Under the state's school-finance law, state-aid grants are based on the wealth of a town, its tax effort, and need, according to Lise S. Heintz, spokesman for the Connecticut Department of Education. The law also requires all towns to meet a "minimum expenditure requirement" based on the schools' current per-pupil costs, in order to qualify for state equalization aid.

In addition, Ms. Heintz said, the law provides for minimum aid payments of $250 per student to all towns without regard to their wealth or ability to raise funds.

Judge Spada took issue with the legislature's decision to phase-in full funding for the program and its subsequent decision to extend the phase-in period beyond the initial five years.

"It is clear that each time [the funding law] is amended the guaranteed-tax-base formula becomes less equitable and more disequalizing," Judge Spada wrote. "Experts from both sides acknowledge that the phase-in extensions and the reductions in scheduled funding perpetuated and exacerbated disparities in per-pupil expenditures. ... The defendants submitted no evidence to justify the extension of the phase-in other than blurred arguments that budgetary priorities were a main consideration."

However, the judge added, "In matters of fundamental rights, budgetary arguments pale."

Funding Increase Ordered

The state currently provides about $377 million in state aid to the schools, which represents about 90 percent of full funding for the grant program, according to Ms. Heintz. Next year, the amount would increase to $421 million based on a budget proposal now under consideration in the legislature.

But to comply with the court's recent decision, Ms. Heintz said, the legislature would be required to authorize an additional $12 million in state aid for the 1984-85 school year.

Judge Spada also directed local officials to fully implement the "minimum expenditure requirement," the provision in the state's school-finance law that requires local officials to maintain a certain level of funding for the schools.

The minimum-expenditure requirement is based on past funding levels, the town's taxing ability, and the percentage of disadvantaged children in the schools, Ms. Heintz explained.

Under the state's school-finance law, towns are required to meet the minimum-expenditure provision in order to qualify for state equalization grants, Ms. Heintz said.

In addition to the minimum-expenditure requirement, Judge Spada found that the minimum state-aid payments were "impermissible" under the state constitution and ordered their elimination.

"The minimum aid grant is found to be a major disequalizing element of the state school-finance program," and therefore, Judge Spada concluded, "cannot be justified as a compelling state interest."

"Although minimum aid represents a small portion of the gtb funding program, it nonetheless contributes to taxing and spending disparities considered of fundamental significance in assessing the constitutionality of school finance," the judge continued.

Calling the level of school funding only one measure of educational equity, Judge Spada also struck down the state law mandating 11 curriculum areas to be offered in all schools and ordered state officials to enact new high-school graduation requirements proposed by the Connecticut Board of Education.

Equal Opportunity

"While both parties have directed the court's attention to per-pupil expenditures as a proxy for educational resources available to towns, experts on both sides agree that equality of expenditures could not guarantee a substantially equal educational opportunity," Judge Spada noted.

"Connecticut has few, if any, standards with which to measure a substantially equal education," he added, other than a general list of subject areas to be offered in the schools.

Noting that the "overwhelming majority of states employ standards by which to measure an educational experience," Judge Spada said that the state should establish a recommended course of study and supervise its implementation in the schools.

A 'Reticent' Attempt

As it now stands, Judge Spada asserted, Connecticut's law is "a general and reticent attempt to provide direction and guidance to local school districts in the curriculum-development process" without mandating that students actually take a particular course of study.

"It fails to state a sufficient public policy," the judge wrote. "When the state commissioner of education acknowledges that the present legislative policy does not effectively articulate the expectations of a suitable educational experience in the public schools, then it becomes a judicial imperative to formulate the guidelines to meet constitutional standards."

A bill that would establish high-school graduation standards is currently under consideration in the state Senate, according to Ms. Heintz. A similiar bill was approved by the state House of Representatives the day after the court released its decision.

The judge also found unconstitutional the state's use of three-year-old data to calculate state-aid payments and ordered the state to use data that is no more than two years old.

Expenditures Inadequate

A.R. Canzonetti, president of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, applauded the judge's rulings on funding for the state's education equalization program and the use of more current data to determine local grant payments. But he said that "the decision fails to recognize that even at full funding, the state expenditure for local educational programs falls significantly below 50 percent of local costs."

"We believe that the court's order to fully implement the minimum-expenditure requirement is important to reducing the disparity in per-pupil expenditures across the state," Mr. Canzonetti said. But he added the court's holding that the $250 minimum grant is unconstitutional ignores the obligation of the state to provide some financial support for the education of all Connecticut's public-school children."

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