William Shakespeare wrote in The Tempest, “Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows” — a quote that has morphed into the modern adage, “Politics makes strange bedfellows.”
The Jan. 17 Connecticut Supreme Court decision overturning Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukhawser’s ruling on public education is a case in point.
“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,” said Jennifer Alexander, CEO of the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now (ConnCAN).
“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,” added Connecticut Education Association (CEA) President Sheila Cohen.
When the leaders of both a charter-school advocacy group like ConnCAN and a teachers’ union like the CEA agree — which is almost never — that makes for some mighty strange bedfellows, indeed.
More than highlighting the unpredictability of politics, this unlikely pairing illustrates the complexities of public education as well as Judge Moukhawsher’s major misfire in his September 2016 decision.
What started in 2005 as a case alleging inequality in education monies ultimately became a “scathing judgment” on Connecticut schools in general. Moukhawsher’s ruling, while ordering reforms to the Education Cost Sharing formula, also criticized the state’s teacher-evaluation process, decried the lack of a statewide graduation requirement, and castigated the allocation of special-education funds. To top it off, Moukhawsher gave educators 180 days to fix it all.
Note: State law requires 180 school days each year. Methinks the judge was being coy with his time frame.
It took Attorney General George Jepsen just one week to appeal Moukhawsher’s ruling. Another 16 months passed — roughly 485 days, or 305 days over the 180-day limit — before the Supreme Court overturned Moukhawsher’s ruling by a 4-3 vote. That protracted time frame symbolizes the complicated nature of public education, a fact reflected in the Supreme Court’s decision.
“[A]lthough 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 last portion of that excerpt rings loudest: Try as they might, schools cannot solve multifaceted societal problems. Charter schools or magnets might offer opportunities for some disadvantaged kids, but most students are still left behind in distressed environments. Schools can’t change that fact.
What school systems can do is realign their resources and improve the schools that already exist. That’s Hartford School Superintendent Leslie Torres-Rodriguez’s plan, which the city school board approved unanimously on Jan. 23: close a dozen under-enrolled schools, reorganize three others, and save the district $15 million annually.
Torres-Rodriguez recognized that the plan may cause some students and families to lose neighborhood schools.
“It is my job to look at the larger picture,” Torres-Rodriguez said. “When we look in isolation, oftentimes, it’s hard to understand all the rationale, but when you look at it systemically and as a superintendent — that’s the task that I have: to look at it broadly for the entire district.”
In short, it takes entire school communities — not bloated court decisions — to improve education. Stakeholders agree that fair and appropriate funding is the first requirement of school improvement — hence the shared dismay of ConnCAN and the CEA over the Supreme Court decision. But beyond money, what’s required is leadership, commitment, and guts to create positive learning environments for kids in the face of a “complex web of disadvantaging societal conditions.”
Shakespeare had it right: “Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.” It’s high time that education’s strange bedfellows — superintendents, teachers, legislators, municipal leaders, and special-interest groups — work together to attack the misery that confronts too many of Connecticut’s schoolchildren.
Barth Keck is an English teacher and assistant football coach who teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language & Composition at Haddam-Killingworth High School.
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