Law & Courts

Connecticut Superior Court Orders Reboot on Education Policy

By Daarel Burnette II — September 07, 2016 3 min read
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In a sweeping and damning ruling issued Tuesday, Connecticut Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher ordered the state’s legislature and department of education to, within the next six months, come up with a new school funding formula, teacher evaluation system, and standards to close the notorious achievement gap between the state’s urban poor and more-affluent suburban children, according to the Associated Press.

“Beyond a reasonable doubt, Connecticut is defaulting on its constitutional duty to provide adequate public school opportunities because it has no rational, substantial, and verifiable plan to distribute money for education aid and school construction,” Moukawsher said. He ordered the state to submit its proposed reforms within 180 days.

The superior court is below the state’s supreme court. The state will likely appeal the ruling to the state’s supreme court.

Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy’s office told the local media that he was still reviewing the ruling.

The ruling, which sprouted from a lawsuit filed 11 years ago by a coalition of education advoates, went far outside the realms of typical school funding lawsuits, which usually rule on whether the way the state distributes education money is both equitable and adequate.

Increasingly, in recent years, districts’ lawyers are using states’ recently adopted standards and the reams of data departments have collected from standardized tests to prove that school funding formulas crafted by legislators prevents teachers from meeting legislators’ own expectations.

Often times, teachers, principals, and education department officials are placed on the witness stand, allowing for more than just funding formulas to be scrutinized by courts. I wrote about this trend in June after Texas’ Supreme Court upheld the state’s funding formula as consitutional, while admitting its education system was wanting.

In Connecticut, a coalition of cities, towns, local boards of education, parent groups, and public school students alleged that the state isn’t meeting its constitutional obligation to provide an adequate education to all of its public school students.

In his 254-page ruling, parts of which he read from the bench (local reporters said it lasted two hours), Mouskawsher described the state’s funding formula as confusing and inconsistent; its standards as inadequate to prepare students for colleges and career; and its teacher evaluation system as an ineffective tool at weeding out the state’s worst teachers, who happen to teach in the state’s worst-performing schools. It also said the state needs to change the way it provides services for students with special needs.

Mark Boughton, the mayor of Danbury, said the ruling was unprecedented.

This is “a sweeping indictment of the education system in Connecticut,” he said, according to the Hartford Courant. “He left no stone unturned.”

Washington Legislators Defend School Funding Progress

Meanwhile, in Washington State, where the state supreme court made a similar ruling in 2012 for the state’s legislature to overhaul its funding formula, legislators told the court that it was trying its hardest to respond to the court’s order. The court’s hearing was in response to a filing made by Randy Dorn, the state’s superintendent, who told the court that the only way to force the state to properly respond to its ruling would be for the court to do something extreme such as shutting down the public school system. The court last year levied a $100,000-a-day fine on the legislature until it comes up with a new formula, a move Dorn described as weak.

The state this year came up with a “plan for a plan” to fix the funding formula by the end of its 2017 legislative session.

“It’s laudable to try to make sure the pressure is on the legislature to ensure we deliver by the 2018 deadline,” state Rep. State Representative Chad Magendanz, a Republican, told the court, according to the Associated Press. “But the threat of closing schools two years in advance of the 2018 deadline is premature. It’s putting kids in a situation where they feel like fish in a blender.”

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