State Supreme Court reverses school funding decision (UPDATED)
Never mind. A court decision that appeared to upend Connecticut’s approach to financing public education has been largely reversed by a state Supreme Court decision, putting questions of equity in education firmly back in the hands of state politicians — legislators, the governor — as well as local town and city officials and voters who approve local school budgets.
“I think everyone is still trying to work out what the impact will be,” Ridgefield Board of Education Chairwoman Frances Walton said Monday, Jan. 22. “I understand that there is a task force working on this issue (education funding) in Hartford, and legislators are waiting to hear what they propose. I am sure that it will be part of the legislative framework this session.”
The split 4-to-3 decision by the Connecticut Supreme Court on Wednesday, Jan. 17, overturned a September 2016 ruling by Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher that mandated a far-reaching overhaul of the state’s education system — including the way it is financed but also touching a variety of educational standards and practices, from special education to teacher evaluations.
The Supreme Court ruled that Judge Moukawsher had exceeded the proper role of the courts in attempting to order repair of the myriad problems contributing to unequal public education in the state that had been shown in the lawsuit brought by the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding (CCJEF) back in 2005.
“In the present case,” the Supreme Court ruled last week, “we acknowledge that the plaintiffs have painted a vivid picture of an imperfect public educational system in this state that is straining to serve many students who, because their basic needs for, among other things, adequate parenting, financial resources, housing, nutrition and care for their physical and psychological health are not being met, cannot take advantage of the educational opportunities that the state is offering.
“We are highly sympathetic to the plight of these struggling students. Indeed, we join our voice to the voices of those who urge the state to do all that it reasonably can to ensure not only that all children in this state have the bare opportunity to receive the minimally adequate education required by article eight of the Connecticut constitution, but also that the neediest children have the support that they need to actually take advantage of that opportunity.
“It is not the function of the courts, however, 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.”
The ruling specifically addressed Connecticut’s dual-source school funding approach, in which the state contributes — with state money, at least in recent years, targeted to direct the bulk of its help to poor or tax-poor towns and cities — but local town and cities provide much of the financing and retain responsibility for budgeting priorities and decisions. The lengthy decision — some 28,000 words — reaches back not only to Judge Moukawsher’s ruling in the CCJEF v. Rell lawsuit (initiated when M. Jodi Rell was governor), but references and builds upon precedent from previous court battles over school financing, such as the 1977 Horton v. Meskill case.
The decision defends wealthier school districts’ right to spend more of their own tax dollars if they wish to, and notes that the distribution of state education money is designed to help the poorer districts.
“This court has recognized that there is a salutary role for preserving local school choice by guaranteeing minimum funds without imposing a ceiling on what a city or town might elect to spend on public education,” last week’s decision says. “The fact that wealthier school districts spent more per pupil than poorer districts by supplementing state educational funds with funds from local property taxes did not render the funding scheme unconstitutional, and the trial court’s finding that state educational spending is skewed in favor of needier school districts showed that the disparities are not so great as to be unconstitutional.”
In the wake of Judge Moukawsher’s 2016 decision, the legislature reworked its school funding practices in an effort to begin dealing with some of the issues raised.
State Senator Toni Boucher, a Republican whose 26th district includes Ridgefield, Redding, Wilton, Westport and parts of Weston, New Canaan and Bethel, expects more work will be done on the issue.
“The initial ruling by Judge Moukawsher caused legislators to take a more critical look at the education needs of the state’s children and whether funding adequately addressed those needs,” said Boucher, who is co-chair of the legislature’s education committee. “For too long, the state’s education funding formula had not been followed and children in distressed districts were being left behind.
“That is why the creation of a new state education funding formula was such a critical part of the bipartisan budget passed last year. We took the initial steps that addressed the imbalance in funding,” she said. “This year, we will continue to examine and address education programs to ensure that all Connecticut students are given the tools and opportunity to succeed.”
Ridgefield’s 111th District State Representative John Frey, a Republican, felt the decision was appropriate, but the legislature still has a lot to do.
“The Court rightly decided that public school funding is not unconstitutional, but that doesn’t absolve the legislature of its role in creating a profoundly unfair system of school funding,” Frey said..
“Legislators still need to look at this funding dilemma and decide a new formula that ensures equal access to good schools, no matter where a student lives. This will be a priority for me to get passed this session.”
State Rep. Michael Ferguson, a Republican whose 138th District includes portions of northern Ridgefield, pointed to the budget passed last fall as a substantial improvement in the situation at the time of Moukawsher’s ruling.
“The bipartisan budget that was passed and signed by the governor in October started to truly address the way we fund education in Connecticut as it revised the ECS formula. I supported the budget, and the revised formula which will be phased in over the next 10 years,” Ferguson said Thursday, Jan 18.
“Due to yesterday’s ruling, we will likely have new conversations over this issue, but the last thing that should happen is simply going back to the way things used to be,” Ferguson said. “I would like to see the changes that were made in the budget continue to be implemented, and have our discussions on this issue center around what we passed in the budget.”
Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy issued a statement urging the state’s politicians to keep working at the problems defined in the lawsuit.
“This decision concludes this landmark case regarding education funding,” Malloy said. “At the same time, the urgency to continue the fight to distribute greater educational dollars where there is the greatest need has not diminished. Since taking office, my administration has made extraordinary investments in education, directing our support to those communities that need help the most while increasing accountability on how those dollars are spent. We continue to believe that the state is obligated to ensure that funding is distributed in a rational manner based on student need, reflecting student poverty and demographic shifts in our communities. While we made some progress last session in establishing a more predictable and transparent funding formula, we haven’t gone far enough. The truth is that 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.”
Ridgefield School Superintendent Karen Baldwin felt the high court's ruling put the burden to act on the politicians.
"The decision is seemingly the end of a very long road for the CCJEF Plaintiffs," Baldwin said. "Given this decision, the General Assembly must now step up to assure that all children in Connecticut receive a substantially equal educational opportunity by providing adequate funds and non financial remedies to address the significant problems in Connecticut’s low wealth school districts−problems that plaintiffs proved in court, as were so dramatically described in Judge Moukawsher’s opinion.
"All the justices recognized that students in some communities are deprived of access to a minimally adequate education," Baldwin said, "but the majority decided that judgments about how to remedy such inadequacies 'are quintessentially legislative in nature.' So this really places a tremendous expectation and challenge on our state legislators."