Don’t our kids deserve great schools?” demanded a clearly frustrated Bridgeport mother of three school-aged children when I recently met with parents in that struggling district.  “Why are you talking about ‘adequacy’ and not about making sure we have great schools?  I want to know why it is that our kids can’t have fabulous schools like other towns in Fairfield County.  It’s just not fair!  It shouldn’t matter where we live.”

Yes, I agree that every child deserves a fabulous school, a great school.  No, it shouldn’t matter where one lives in Connecticut for a child to enjoy high-quality schooling. No, the gross disparities in school quality are not fair — and they’re also not constitutional, as many of us in education and legal circles argue.  Alas, the constitutional standard, generally referred to as “adequacy,” falls somewhat shy of “great” or “fabulous” schools. Yet the adequacy bar ensures every Connecticut child and community “good” schools and a “suitable” education commensurate with the ever-increasing demands of an evolving global economy and dynamic changes within our nation’s democratic, multicultural society.

Over the past three decades or so, most legal challenges that seek to enforce schoolchildren’s rights to a quality education under state constitutions have become known as “adequacy” cases. Adequacy speaks to a specified level of educational outcome that has been deemed to be sufficient, or “adequate.”  An end goal of adequacy litigation is to secure sufficient funding and other resources necessary for students in every district and demographic group to meet some basic adequacy standard. Adequacy is almost always combined with equal opportunity principles — as in the CCJEF adequacy and equity lawsuit currently underway in the Connecticut courts — asserting the right for all children to have access to a sufficient level of resources and quality of education that provides them a realistic possibility for achieving at least the specified adequate levels of outcomes, just like their peers in high-wealth communities.

The cost of adequacy in dollars and other resource inputs varies significantly across districts, schools, and children, given the diverse learning needs of students. Given the direct impact the adequacy standard has on costs accruing to the state and to local taxpayers, just how high to set that standard is often a source of protracted and heated political debate.  Not surprisingly, a failure to rationally set the adequacy standard at a level that meets the high expectations for school and student performance held by savvy parents, the admissions and retention standards of postsecondary institutions, and the demands for a smart, creative, and motivated entry-level workforce by employers means that adequacy lawsuits often are marked by repeated appeals to the courts to intervene on behalf of students when states fail to adjust their school aid formulas to reflect adequacy standards or fail to fully fund those new formulas. 

Adequate resources, it should be noted, are insufficient for creating or sustaining “dream schools.” Rather, adequate resources are intended to create and sustain “good” schools wherein all children, regardless of color, geography, wealth, or other happenstance of birth have access to a sound, basic, 21st-Century education that prepares them for responsible citizenship, higher education or advanced training, and success in the modern workplace. How the costs of education adequacy can be estimated and what the relationship is between those costs and how high the outcome standard is set will be discussed in next week’s posting. 

So what constitutes an adequate education? How might that definition be operationalized to explicitly address the principles of equity and adequacy? And how high is the adequacy bar that CT should set for school and student outcomes? These are important questions as the new ECS Task Force work gets underway and the Malloy Administration and 2012 Legislative session also consider weighing in by statutorily defining adequacy.

For the past 14 years Connecticut educators, boards of education members, municipal leaders, parents, students, and community leaders throughout the state have been peppering me with long lists of unmet local education needs that they attribute to inadequate state aid.  Their lists of urgent needs are often coupled with equally long lists of unfunded or under-funded state and federal education mandates that have been foisted on strained local budgets. Here’s how these public school stakeholders from communities of every wealth level describe adequacy:

• Universal preschool, with expansion of PK programs in public schools
• All-day kindergarten (mandatory)
• Assistance for all English Language Learners at all levels of language acquisition and for as long as needed
• Services for Special Education students and inclusion programs that work
• Help for students falling behind
• Up-to-date computers and related technology for teaching and learning
• Up-to-date textbooks and other classroom materials
• Modern, well-equipped libraries/media centers staffed by certified librarians
• Smaller class sizes appropriate to students’ learning needs and subject-matter content
• Foreign language options, with instruction beginning in the early grades
• College prep classes, including Advanced Placement (with tracking abolished)
• Opportunities for gifted/talented students, including academic enrichment in the elementary grades; honors and dual-enrollment/early college programs for secondary students
• Guidance counselors, social workers, school psychologists
• College and career counseling
• School-based health and dental services; full-time RNs in every school; all teachers, administrators, and athletic staff certified in CPR
• Extra academic time (after-school and summer programs)
• Longer school day and year
• Extracurricular activities (sports, clubs, community service activities)
• Parent outreach by school staff; parent training and support programs
• Modern facilities, classrooms, playgrounds, and athletic fields
• Well-paid, caring, and excellent teachers, with reduced turnover
• Professional development/training for teachers and administrators

Depending on the student population each school district serves, some of the above may not be necessary in every community. However, as substantiated by a district’s school improvement plan and in conjunction with the community’s fair share of local school aid, the state should assure the sufficient financial wherewithal for every school district to put in place any or all of the above adequacy components. 

A well-designed, fully funded ECS is fundamental to ensuring education adequacy and equity for all. Nevertheless, state support for adequacy need not come solely through the Education Cost Sharing (ECS) grant.  While the ECS constitutes about half of the state’s total contribution to education, another small portion is used to award more than two dozen smaller categorical grants, such as grants that help support pupil transportation, special education excess costs, or vocational agriculture programs. Unfortunately, the history of state categorical grants is that they are too small to accomplish much, serving mostly to pilot innovations and interventions within a few schools but seldom districtwide; once the funding dries up, the program goes away because the local district has no budget capacity to sustain even the most promising of these programs. 

Take heed, everyone!  The intricacies of the ECS and current attempts to revise it, as well as the legal complexities and educational nuances that will underlie any crafting of a statutory definition of adequacy, will have dramatic consequences for the future of our children and grandchildren, the fiscal viability and academic prowess of our public schools, the demographic makeup and vitality of our towns and neighborhoods, and the economy and quality of life within this state. 

The school finance-related policy climate needs to ensure that every district or school that today is “failing” has the resources and uses them prudently to reinvent itself and advance to a “good” standard of adequacy, and that today’s “good” schools and districts also have enough state support to move forward to “great.” The ultimate intent:  rather than the “land of steady habits” or “the Nutmeg state,” Connecticut should become nationally recognized as the “home of great schools” — in every town, every neighborhood, no exceptions. 

That glowing vision of our future means that the coming policy changes must not ignore or even inadvertently reinforce the untenable disparities in educational opportunity that have disproportionately impacted communities serving large proportions of poor and minority children and perpetuated the Two Connecticuts. To pass constitutional muster, any future education funding policy reforms will need to help realize this vision.

NEXT WEEK:  Funding education adequacy

Dr. Dianne Kaplan deVries is an education consultant who also serves as Project Director for the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding, plaintiffs in the CCJEF v. Rell education adequacy and equity lawsuit. Opinions expressed here, however, are solely hers and not necessarily those of CCJEF or