Photo of Judge Thomas Moukawsher
Judge Thomas Moukawsher

In a 90-page decision with more than 1,000 findings of fact, Hartford Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher said “Connecticut is defaulting on its constitutional duty to provide adequate public school opportunities,” and has 180 days to devise a new funding formula for public education.

Moukawsher read his decision aloud Wednesday in a Hartford Superior Court room where the plaintiffs, including the local elected officials and educators who brought the lawsuit more than a decade ago, gathered to hear the decision.

Even though Moukawsher laid out several deadlines for the state to meet to come up with a funding formula, new high school graduation requirements, a definition of elementary education, a new teacher evaluation system that ties teacher performance more closely to student achievement, and a special education funding formula, he was careful not to dictate how the state goes about coming up with the new formulas and definitions.

However, “without a court order, a plan adopted today can be ignored tomorrow,” Moukawsher said. “That’s what happened with the Educational Cost Sharing formula.”

Moukawsher said the ECS formula, which was intended to be used to distribute state aid to all 169 cities and towns in Connecticut, was largely abandoned by the legislature in 2013. In lieu of the formula, the state has been allocating a set dollar amount to each town over the past few years, Moukawsher said.

Instead of imposing his own funding formula, Moukawsher said he will review the state’s proposed remedy in 180 days. That means the state will be required to come up with a formula in the middle of the 2017 legislative session.

He said a formula “must apply educationally based principles to allocate funds in light of the special circumstances of the state’s poorest communities. An approach that allows rich towns to raid money desperately needed by poor towns makes a mockery of the state’s constitutional duty to provide adequate educational opportunities to all students.”

Moukawsher said the state must also define elementary and secondary education.

“A spending scheme really can’t be said to be aimed at elementary and secondary school education when the state doesn’t even enforce a coherent idea of what these words mean,” Moukawsher said.

Moukawsher said Connecticut’s definition of secondary education “is like a sugar-cube boat. It dissolves before it’s half launched.”

He went on to describe state education policies as “befuddled and misdirected.” He said the state has largely been graduating high school students without actually educating them, adding that 70 percent of community college students don’t have basic literacy and numeracy skills, yet they still graduated from Connecticut high schools.

As for the new teacher evaluation system, Moukawsher said a “system where everyone succeeds is useless.” He said there’s no connection between teacher performance and student achievement.

But the case was filed largely to highlight the inequity in educational opportunity between Connecticut’s large urban school districts and higher achieving suburban school districts.

The decision, which took nearly three hours for Moukawsher to read aloud in court, was applauded by Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton and Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim.

“It’s the most sweeping education decision in decades,” Boughton said.

It’s a tough decision and will require the state to think hard about the issue, but like many things the “devil is in the details,” Boughton added.

Ganim, whose city is the largest and also one of the poorest in the state, said the decision is a long time coming. It’s at least the third education lawsuit that’s been filed over the past three decades. Ganim called the decision a “game changer” for Connecticut’s children and urged the state not to appeal it.

“We are reviewing this decision in consultation with our client agencies and decline to comment further at this time,” Samuel Carmody, a spokesman in the attorney general’s office, said Wednesday.

Herb Rosenthal, the president of the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding, the organization which represents the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said he believes the decision supported almost all of the arguments it made over a 60 day trial.

“Now that the court has found that the essential aspects of the existing education system is unconstitutional it must begin the all important task of constructing a specific remedy to address the system’s inadequacies,” Rosenthal said.

Christine Stuart photo
Herb Rosenthal, president of the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding (Christine Stuart photo)

Rosenthal said he doesn’t believe the legislature will be able to complete the job of rewriting most of the underpinnings of Connecticut’s education system without additional funding, even though the judge didn’t mandate an increase in funding.

“I don’t see how it can be done without more funding,” Rosenthal said. “It will be up to the legislature.”

Joseph Moodhe, who litigated the case on behalf of CCJEF, said they will be monitoring the state’s proposals closely.

Moodhe, of Debevoise and Plimpton, said they are hoping for a rapid effort to address the comments of the court by the legislature and the executive branch.

Jim Finley, a CCJEF consultant and lobbyist, said it’s possible a special session will be needed to tackle some of the issues if they don’t complete the work during the 2017 session that will adjourn in June.

Despite the scathing indictment of Connecticut’s education system and the lack of progress by students in many districts, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy maintained that he’s moved the system forward during his six years in office.

“Since I took office, the state has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in education with an overwhelming share directed at supporting our students who need it the most,” Malloy said Wednesday in a statement. “These investments come with greater accountability, because we know that delivering a quality education isn’t a matter of funding alone, but a matter of how valuable resources — time, money, and talent — are allocated.”

He said he believes the investments are paying off and students are showing improvements in reading and math, but the court’s decision drew a different conclusion.

The court decision says the most recent standardized test showed that 80 to 90 percent of poor students failed to reach the minimum standards for high school reading. In Bridgeport, just 1.9 percent of students were on track to be college and career ready.

Countless teachers from Bridgeport, Windham, New London, and New Britain testified that they graduated their students to the next grade even though they were only able to read at kindergarten levels.