Budget & Finance

Conn. Supreme Court Will Hear Appeal to School Funding Case

By Daarel Burnette II — September 21, 2016 4 min read
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Connecticut’s supreme court will hear an expedited appeal of a superior court’s sweeping ruling that the state’s funding formula doesn’t meet constitutional standards, according the Associated Press.

Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher issued 90-page ruling earlier this month demanding that the state overhaul its public school system to fix disparities between its poor and wealthier students.

And, riding on a wave of national attention, the districts and mayors that filed the original lawsuit have told the state’s supreme court that it should wait to see what the legislature does next term before deciding to hear the appeal.

The ruling regarding the state’s yawning achievement gap shocked even the plaintiffs for its breadth, language, and demand that the state essentially make over its entire approach to educating its students within the next 180 days.

The plaintiffs filed the suit almost 12 years ago, arguing that the state had broken its constitutional obligation to equitably and adequately fund its school districts.

But Moukawsher went far beyond just ruling on school finance.

In his legnthy opinion, which he read aloud in court on Sept. 7, he said the state’s inability to educate its poorest students was a stain on Connecticut’s reputation.

The state “has left rich school districts to flourish and poor school districts to flounder,” he said.

Pointing out that Connecticut’s poor students academically ranked last on many national scorecards, he said the state must improve the way it pays, evaluates, and distributes its teachers among districts, upend its high school and graduation standards, and come up with a new funding formula, which he said currently makes no sense.

In his appeal, state Attorney General George Jepsen, a Democrat, said it’s not the court’s role to dictate education policy.

“This decision would wrest educational policy from the representative branches of state government, limit public education for some students with special needs, create additional municipal mandates concerning graduation and other standards, and alter the basic terms of educators’ employment—and entrust all of those matters to the discretion of a single, unelected judge.”

That sounds eerily familiar to Kansas’ conservative Republican Gov. Sam Brownback and several of his tea party colleagues in Topeka who lashed out at that state’s supreme court justices WHEN?--MB when they threatened to close schools unless the legislature forked over more money to districts with large populations of poor and minority students.

The high court judges in Kansas on Wednesday will hear the second half of the case where plaintiffs argue that the state also doesn’t adequately fund schools. Losing that case could cost the state more than $400 million. (Watch the live stream of that hearing here.)

There’s now a concerted effort in Kansas to rid the judges of authority to rule on school finance. (There have also been legislative efforts in Tennessse and New Hampshire to get rid of judges’ powers when it comes to school finance.)

Connecticut’s Gov. Dannel Malloy, a Democrat, along with the state’s business community, said that the ruling in that state is a chance for the legislature to press the reset button on how the state closes the achievement gap, a decades-long fight.

On Monday, the plaintiffs, a group of mayors, superintendents, students and other education advocates, operating under the banner the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding, responded to the appeal by asking the state supreme court to wait until after next year’s legislature’s session before deciding whether to hear the case. There’s a slim possibility, they said, that state leaders could actually satisfy the judge’s requests.

One solution, several think tanks and education advocates have brought up in recent weeks is to merge the state’s shrinking districts with its overpopulated urban districts—essentially integrate the state’s public school system. (Connecticut is known to have some of the country’s most economically and racially segregated schools.)

Unlike most states, Connecticut’s constitution has an anti-segregation and anti-discrimination clause,meaning the state’s court could essentially force the state’s schools to integrate.

As Lincoln Caplan pointed out in the New Yorker last week, The Connecticut Council for School Reform suggested that the state divvy its districts up into regions, allowing poor, black and brown students to attend schools with wealthy white students in typically wealthier communities.

Of course, even in a liberal state such as Connecticut, this is a third-rail issue, and ever since the 1970s busing battles that roiled state politicians in most states have been reluctant to even consider integration, despite the many studies showing its academic impact.

This past weekend, amid all the hoopla around the judge’s ruling, the radio program This American Life reaired its series on segregated schools, a portion of which focused on Hartford’s long-fought efforts to desegregate.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.