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SNAPSHOT | School Finance

A Judge Gets Tough

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Connecticut Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher issued a sweeping order Sept. 7, giving the state 180 days to overhaul a state school system that he said misspends billions of dollars and leaves wealthier students performing at the nation’s highest levels and poor students at the bottom. The state has appealed, and the Connecticut Supreme Court is expected to hear its appeal later this year. Excerpts and takeaways from the judge’s damning, 90-page opinion follow.

Distribution of Funds

"A plan that spends a lot of money and is not entirely irrational is still not a rational plan. Without consciously and logically marshaling education aid—if the legislature can adopt principles and then ignore them—the state cannot be said to have a formula at all, not to mention one that takes seriously the supreme court’s insistence on a ‘program of instruction rationally calculated to enforce the constitutional right to a minimally adequate education.' "


The state distributes funds in a way that makes little sense to the general public and leaves poor districts suffering dramatic cuts while wealthy districts get boosts to their state aid, according to the judge’s order. That happened last year, as the state suffered a "bone-crushing fiscal crisis" that led to funding cuts for several poor districts and big increases for wealthy ones, Moukawsher said.

Special Education

"Special education identification and intervention is unquestionably individualized, but that doesn’t mean it has to be chaotic. Congress and the General Assembly have ordered school districts to bear immense financial burdens in the name of special education without giving them much help shouldering them."


The judge says that the state spends hundreds of millions of dollars on students who are incapable of receiving an education, and that there’s no reliable system in place to determine who qualifies for special education services. Also, he says, children attending impoverished districts often qualify for special education but are denied it because the school system can’t afford it.

Academic Standards

"The standards say what students should learn at each grade level, but they can’t do much good where they’re needed most because they don’t stop students from graduating when they fall miles below the standard. ... The state’s definition of what it means to have a secondary education is like a sugar-cube boat. It dissolves before it’s half launched."


Moukawsher takes issue with what he believes is the haphazard way the state uses its own standards to pass children through primary and secondary school and then grant them a high school diploma. Thousands of elementary students are allowed to progress without gaining basic reading skills, in his view, and high school graduation requirements dramatically diverge from district to district. Moukawsher also notes problems with the state’s online credit-recovery program, which he describes as unregulated and ill-defined. In effect, high schools in impoverished cities are graduating students without basic literacy and numeracy skills and with "patronizing and illusory degrees," he says.

Data Snapshot
60 days of trial
826 exhibits
50 witnesses, including 20 education and school finance experts
1,060 individual findings of fact

Teacher Quality

"Despite a lot of talk, teacher evaluation is still almost entirely local, and the state standards are almost entirely illusory. ... An inflated teacher-evaluation system, like a graduation or grading system where everyone succeeds, is virtually useless."


Because the state’s teacher-evaluation system is weak and subjective, the state’s most academically struggling students are placed in front of underpaid and unqualified teachers, Moukawsher says. He especially takes issue with how many teachers are given exemplary ratings on their teacher evaluations while the majority of their students have fallen short on state tests.

Funding Level

"The plaintiffs haven’t provided by a preponderance of the evidence, or beyond a reasonable doubt, that the state’s schools lack enough light, space, heat, and air to permit children to learn."


The judge determined that the state is providing an "adequate" amount of money for its schools, citing the millions of dollars that it spends on school construction, turnaround efforts, and more.


"The connection between the constitution’s education mandate and the means of carrying it out doesn’t have to be ideal to avoid judicial scrutiny. Not everything has to be perfectly equal, either."


Moukawsher provides several potential solutions, including: reducing class sizes, racially integrating schools, providing more interventions for struggling students, and expanding prekindergarten services. But he stops short of prescribing resolutions, saying that’s outside the court’s role.

TOP PHOTO: Connecticut Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher reads his ruling on the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education v. Rell lawsuit last month in Hartford.
CREDIT: Pool photo Michelle McLoughlin

Vol. 36, Issue 08, Page 18

Published in Print: October 12, 2016, as A Judge Gets Tough
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