From his Olympian perch, Hartford Superior Court Judge Thomas G. Moukawsher last week hurled a thunderbolt at just about everyone you could imagine who works in the field of public education.
Actually, from teachers to administrators to lawmakers to students, parents and advocates for the disabled, there was something to offend everyone. If you’ve been living on another planet — or have little interest in education in the state of Connecticut — be advised that in response to a lawsuit brought by the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education, Moukawsher delivered a blistering 90-page decision that could either reshape the way public education works in Connecticut or spark a rash of litigation from those aggrieved by the decision.
The judge gave the General Assembly, which is in the middle of election season and typically moves at a glacial pace anyway, only six months to devise a new funding formula for public education. That means much of the upcoming 2017 legislative session starting in January would have to be devoted to the topic. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that Moukawsher has imposed an unrealistic deadline.
Echoing the frustration of employers and community college administrators who complain about the readiness of the state’s high-school graduates, he wants every potential graduate to pass an exit exam before receiving a diploma.
Strangely, Moukawsher said little about how the state should arrive at the new formulas or how much additional funding the state should provide. Even more strangely, he wants a new teacher evaluation system (“a system where everyone succeeds is useless,” he said) that ties teacher performance more closely to student achievement.
But perhaps the strangest part of Moukawsher’s decision was this little gem: Declaring the way the state funds special education “irrational,” Moukawsher suggested some students are so disabled as to be uneducable and that resources devoted to their education would be better spent elsewhere.
The Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents characterized it as an “apparent ruling that would require the State not to program for children whose special needs are so severe that education cannot materially influence the quality of their lives.” As you might expect, Courant columnist, lawyer and former state lawmaker Kevin Rennie was less charitable. He called it a “cruel call for the abandonment from public schools of some students coping with the most serious disabilities.”
And of course there is also the distinct possibility that such a policy would run afoul of the federal Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, which guarantees all children a “free appropriate public education.”
In a thoughtful blog post, respected Hartford lawyer Dan Klau acknowledged that “many of his factual findings seem dead-on,” but as “a matter of constitutional law” Klau nonetheless characterized Moukawsher’s decision as “a prime example of judicial overreach.”
In addition to the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education, there were a handful of city mayors who wasted no time in applauding the decision. Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton was enthusiastic, but prophetically added that “the devil is in the details.” Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim called the decision a “game changer” for Connecticut’s children and urged the state not to appeal it.
Evidently, the powers-that-be were in no mood to take advice from a convicted felon. Asked earlier this week in New Haven about Moukawsher’s edict, Gov. Dannel Malloy punted to Attorney General George Jepsen, who announced yesterday morning the state would appeal to the Connecticut Supreme Court, which will determine whether the state’s education and funding policies are indeed in violation of the state’s own constitution.
I agree with Klau that even if one agrees with Moukawsher’s analysis and conclusions, we cannot have judges making sweeping decisions that are better left to elected officials and policy experts.
Wednesday on WNPR’s Wheelhouse, guest Colin McEnroe said Moukawsher “is trying anyway to at least start [a] conversation.”
“That’s what you do in an op-ed,” Rennie replied. “That’s not what you do in a court decision.”
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