Judge Thomas Moukawsher’s ruling last week that the state must devise a new formula for funding public schools was not surprising. What was surprising was the wide-ranging scope of his criticism of public schools as well as the exceedingly tight timeframe — 180 days — he gave the state to remedy the problem.
“The extraordinary ruling orders the state to revamp virtually all areas of public education — from the hiring and firing of teachers, to special education services, to education standards for elementary and high school students,” reported the Hartford Courant. “He also criticized the state’s generous reimbursement policy for school construction projects, especially in an age of decreasing enrollment.”
In short, Judge Moukawsher issued a scathing judgment on how Connecticut educates its children. As a public school teacher for the past 25 years, I found much of what he said in a three-hour reading of his 90-page decision insulting.
I do agree, in principle, with the judge’s ruling that “Connecticut is defaulting on its constitutional duty to provide adequate public school opportunities,” particularly since the state’s educational funding formula “allows rich towns to raid money desperately needed by poor towns,” essentially “mak[ing] a mockery of the state’s constitutional duty to provide adequate educational opportunities to all students.”
But Moukawsher’s generalizations about public schools and teachers were glaringly ignorant of the real strides that Connecticut schools — including the ones in “poor towns” — are making.
For example, the judge wrote that the state’s teacher evaluation system is “little more than cotton candy in a rainstorm” since “[s]tate standards are leaving teachers with uselessly perfect evaluations and pay that follows only seniority and degrees instead of reflecting need and good teaching.”
While the judge’s literary flair might impress other English teachers, I find his allusion to a Nikki Giovanni poem rather rude:
“I strangle my words as easily as I do my tears
I stifle my screams as frequently as I flash my smile
it means nothing
I am cotton candy on a rainy day
the unrealized dream of an idea unborn”
Am I to believe that the countless hours my colleagues and I have spent since 2014 developing concrete, skills-based objectives and metrics under Connecticut’s newly instituted teacher evaluation system have amounted to nothing? Are the goals I set for my sophomore English students — and which I measure with numerous assessments throughout the school year — really nothing more than “cotton candy on a rainy day”?
The judge writes that student outcome indicators have “turn[ed] to slush” under this evaluation system, but I defy him to come to the same conclusion after looking at my district’s vigilant implementation of the system.
Connecticut schools, simply, cannot be trusted, adds Judge Moukawsher, since “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.”
Again, am I to believe that the 98 percent of the senior class that graduated from my school last year — 92 percent of whom currently attend post-secondary schools — are falling “miles below the standard”?
Do we really need to update — yet again — state educational standards? Must we go so far as to institute a statewide graduation test in order to “improve” public education throughout Connecticut?
To hear Judge Moukawsher tell it, the answer is a resounding “yes.”
“The state is responsible for Connecticut public schools, not local school districts,” wrote the judge. “To be constitutional, the state’s chief educational policies do not have to be richly funded, but they must be rational, sustainable, and verifiable.”
I suppose, then, that educational gains made in individual districts should be discounted. After all, such gains are clearly meaningless since the evaluation of any Connecticut teacher is the product of a “dysfunctional system.”
Then again, no. For all of Judge Moukawsher’s pontificating about the failures of public education, most Connecticut schools continue to improve. And teachers — at least the ones I know and work with daily — are working harder than ever to help kids learn and succeed beyond high school. For the judge to conveniently ignore such efforts is nothing but personal grandstanding.
In the end, Judge Moukawsher may honestly believe that “schools have to be about teaching children and nothing else,” but he’s sadly mistaken. Clearly, he’s never taught in a Connecticut public school — urban, suburban, or rural — if he thinks teachers do nothing but “teach.” And while his ruling to ensure fairness in school funding is morally correct, his haughty rhetoric castigating Connecticut’s public schools and those who work in them is simply narrow-minded and offensive.
Barth Keck is an English teacher and assistant football coach who also teaches courses in journalism and media literacy at Haddam-Killingworth High School.
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