It’s been two months since Judge Thomas Moukawsher held center stage for three hours in his courtroom to recite a decision calling for an overhaul of the public school system. Not surprisingly, the decision is still making news.
Just last week, a poll of 600 Connecticut voters showed 68 percent support the judge’s decision. What’s more, “57 percent of voters want the General Assembly to take immediate action” rather than wait for the result of Attorney General George Jepsen’s appeal.
Even Judge Moukawsher himself took the time to pen a Hartford Courant op-ed to express his awareness that “people with learning disabilities — I like the newer name ‘diverse learners’ — are all around us. They face a broad spectrum of challenges and possibilities.”
“I know,” Judge Moukawsher added. “I am a judge, but I was — and am — also a diverse learner.”
In his op-ed, the judge chronicled his firsthand experience with “learning disabilities,” from his early struggles in elementary school to his current status as an adult with “attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and a non-verbal learning disorder.”
Despite the arrival of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, “I was still way behind, and it took me until college to catch up,” wrote Moukawsher. “I had no medication. There was no extra help at my Catholic high school. A lot of colleges didn’t want me, until I found The Citadel military college.” There, the judge learned a sort of self-discipline, the same discipline he employed “in law school and as a lawyer too.”
In short, Judge Moukawsher’s success is a lesson for us all: Don’t wait for outside help. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps and grit your way through challenges.
But why did the judge feel the need to publicly share his tribulations as a “diverse learner”? Could it be due to his remarks about special education, the most roundly criticized portion of his decision?
“The call is not about whether certain profoundly disabled children are entitled to a ‘free appropriate public education,’” wrote Moukhawsher. “It is about whether schools can decide in an education plan for a covered child that the child has a minimal or no chance for education, and therefore the school should not make expensive, extensive, and ultimately pro-forma efforts.”
As Edward Feinstein, a lawyer focusing on special education, explained, “Numerous other federal courts and the U.S. Department of Education have held that it is illegal to discriminate against the most disabled. This policy is not only mandated by the language of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, it is also sound, just and humane. For years, individuals with disabilities have been shunned, segregated and placed out of sight in institutions. By deeming the disabled as the other, we strip them of their humanity and feel free in removing their basic human rights.”
Perhaps Judge Moukhawsher was willing to share his “hard knocks” experience in school so that he might appear more sympathetic to disabled learners.
But what about the rest of the judge’s decision — the unfair system of educational funding, the feckless teacher evaluation program, the nonexistent high school graduation exam? If 68 percent of Connecticut’s voters support it, the judge must have gotten most of it right.
A closer look at the survey reveals the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now (ConnCAN) paid the Benenson Strategy Group to conduct it. You remember ConnCAN, the group that bused hundreds of students into New Haven to attend a rally two years ago to promote “high-quality schools” for “every child in Connecticut.” What ConnCAN didn’t tell people was that it is an organization “at the forefront of lobbying for the creation of more charter schools.”
Meanwhile, the Benenson Strategy Group is a marketing and research firm whose “consultants deliver insights-based strategies that achieve better results for our clients and help them connect with their audiences — resulting in historic victories, above-market performance, and stronger brands.”
So was ConnCAN’s survey following Judge Moukawsher’s decision an expression of sincere concern for Connecticut children or part of a larger strategy to create a “stronger brand” in the public education “marketplace”?
Last week, I emailed Byron McCauley, ConnCAN’s Director of Communications, seeking answers. In particular, I asked why ConnCAN commissioned the poll and if the group had specific plans for addressing the issues outlined in Judge Moukhawsher’s decision. I have yet to receive a response.
All of it leaves me wondering: Is anybody acting honorably in the efforts to improve public education? Is a Connecticut judge using the issue to expand his public profile? Is a special-interest group stealthily jumping at the opportunity to expand its reach? Does anyone honestly care about disadvantaged kids who deserve a fair and effective education?
Judge Moukhawher’s decision was movement in the right direction, deeming the state’s Education Cost Sharing formula unfair. But by disparaging the entire public education system — a perspective beyond the scope of the case wherein plaintiffs claimed the “property-tax-reliant system of funding education in Connecticut is broken” — the judge needlessly opened up a can of worms that will likely create more problems than it solves.
Maybe we need another survey to gather even more ideas.
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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