HARTFORD, CT — The state Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that Connecticut’s education system is imperfect, but not unconstitutional.
The decision may signal the end of 12 years of litigation over whether the state has been providing enough funding for its poorest school districts.
In a 4-3 decision in which three of the justices concurred and dissented with parts of the ruling, the majority concluded that it’s not the function of the courts to create educational policy “or to attempt by judicial fiat to eliminate all of the societal deficiencies that continue to frustrate the state’s educational efforts. Rather, the function of the courts is to determine whether the narrow and specific criteria for a minimally adequate educational system under our state constitution have been satisfied.”
The justices, in overturning Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher’s ruling, wrote that “although the plaintiffs have convincingly demonstrated that in this state there is a gap in educational achievement between the poorest and neediest students and their more fortunate peers, disparities in educational achievement, standing alone, do not constitute proof that our state constitution’s equal protection provisions have been violated. The plaintiffs have not shown that this gap is the result of the state’s unlawful discrimination against poor and needy students in its provision of educational resources as opposed to the complex web of disadvantaging societal conditions over which the schools have no control.”
The Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding, which brought the case against then-Gov. M. Jodi Rell and worked for years to get it to trial, was deeply disappointed with the decision.
“CCJEF believes a case of this landmark magnitude should not be left dangling on such a close vote but requires instead the kind of clarity for the future of the State’s educational system that only a new trial and a definitive majority can establish,” James Finley, chief consultant for the group, said.
Finley said the coalition expects to file a motion for reconsideration.
“For over twelve years CCJEF has been battling in the Connecticut courts to ensure that every K-12 public school student in our state has the opportunity to receive their constitutionally guaranteed right to an adequate and equitable education,” Finley said. “Our courts are the backstop to ensure that state constitutional rights are protected when the other two branches of state government fail in their duty to do so.”
However, there are some in the executive and legislative branches of government who would be happy to put this case in the rearview mirror in order to move forward with changes.
“This decision concludes this landmark case regarding education funding,” said Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who was once a plaintiff in the case a mayor of Stamford before being elected governor to then become a defendant in the case. “At the same time, the urgency to continue the fight to distribute greater educational dollars where there is the greatest need has not diminished.”
He said no court “can mandate political courage, and it is my hope that current and future policymakers continue to make progress with a more fair distribution of educational aid.”
Senate President Martin Looney, a Democrat from New Haven, said the court’s decision “reaffirmed that local education funding is firmly in the purview of the General Assembly.”
But the legislature, according to the coalition of plaintiffs, has failed to create a system that provides every student with an adequate education.
“Every child in Connecticut deserves a first class education,” Looney said. “Our job will not be complete until we eliminate the inequities inherent our educational system and ensure that children in every city and every town across Connecticut receive a fair shot at academic success.”
House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, a Republican from Derby, said the ruling provides an opportunity for the legislature.
“Everyone involved is frustrated that a comprehensive solution to this matter has eluded us,” Klarides said. “Disparities in our schools exist and that is not acceptable. But there is the will to bring the spectrum of stakeholders together and this offers new opportunities to address solutions in a comprehensive manner.”
But some stakeholders aren’t as optimistic about what the ruling means.
“Communities all over the state have already seen the state withdraw from its obligation to fund our public schools,” Connecticut Education Association President Sheila Cohen said. “Rather than protect the quality of education in our communities, this decision allows the governor and the legislature to continue to slash funding to our schools and children. If Connecticut is to be an educational leader now and in the future, it will require that elected officials honor their duty to provide the equitable funding and resources all children deserve.”
Jennifer Alexander, CEO of the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now (ConnCAN), seemed to agree, even though her group is often at odds with the teacher’s union.
“Today’s ruling from the State Supreme Court in no way absolves the state from fixing the persistent and alarming problems in our education system that Judge Moukawsher cited in his ruling,” Alexander said. “The status quo is failing far too many kids who are graduating from high school without the knowledge or skills they need to be successful in college or career.”
Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim, whose city is a member of the CCJEF coalition, said he’s also disappointed in the decision.
“We strongly believe that Judge Moukawsher was right when he ruled that while there may be enough resources overall spent to create an adequate education for all Connecticut public school students, the way in which the state has chosen to distribute these resources is irrational, and unconstitutionally disadvantages students from poor and challenged districts such as Bridgeport,” Ganim said. “How can you say that the state is meeting its constitutional obligation to provide an adequate education to Bridgeport’s 22,000 public school students when it only spends $14,000 per pupil, and in better off communities nearly double is spent on every student?”
AFT Connecticut President Jan Hochadel, whose organization joined the lawsuit 13 years ago, said the decision puts the “responsibility for addressing and resolving the underlying cause of Connecticut’s broken education funding system on our elected leaders.”
She said the court “essentially issued a renewed call to action.”
The question remains whether the legislature has the political will to make the necessary changes to how education is funded.