Last week, Connecticut Judge Thomas G. Moukawsher found Connecticut’s system of education unconstitutional. Here is how Elizabeth Harris of the NY Times describes the decision in the eleven year old case, Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding v. Rell: “Reading his ruling from the bench for more than two hours, Judge Thomas Moukawsher of State Superior Court in Hartford said that ‘Connecticut is defaulting on its constitutional duty’ to give all children an adequate education. Judge Moukawsher’s decision was a response to a lawsuit filed more than a decade ago that claimed the state was shortchanging the poorest districts when it came to school funding. What separates the decision from those in dozens of similar suits around the country is that rather than addressing money only, it requires the state to rethink nearly every major aspect of its system.” It is expected that Judge Moukawsher’s decision will be appealed.
In a wishful and foolishly simplistic front-page analysis for the NY Times—an analysis that muses on national issues of education policy and misunderstands the legal implications of the Connecticut decision, Kate Zernike compliments Judge Moukawsher’s wide-ranging condemnation of Connecticut’s entire system of education: “(H)is unsparing 90-page ruling read and resonated like a cry from the heart on the failings of American public education… He criticized ‘uselessly perfect teacher evaluations’ that found ‘virtually every teacher in the state’ proficient or exemplary, while a third of students in many of the poorest communities cannot read even at basic levels… Though his ruling was about Connecticut, he spoke to a larger nationwide truth: After decades of lawsuits about equity and adequacy in education financing, after federal efforts like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, after fights over the Common Core standards and high-stakes testing and the tug of war between charter schools and community schools, the stubborn achievement gaps between rich and poor, minority and white students persist.”
While anyone who has been paying attention to decades’ of so-called efforts to reform American public education can certainly sympathize with Zernike’s frustration, Harris quotes William S. Koski, a school finance expert at Stanford University, who notes that Judge Moukawsher did not decide the issue the court was charged to address—inadequate school funding in Connecticut’s poorest school districts: “Most of these school finance lawsuits are about numbers, and about whether adequate funding is being provided for whatever learning outcomes the court establishes. Really, it’s typically about the money.”
Writing for the Stamford Advocate, Wendy Lecker, an expert on school finance and an attorney with the Education Law Center, explicates in more detail this primary challenge identified by Koski: “On the funding front… while the judge did declare Connecticut’s system of distributing school aid unconstitutional, he found that the state was providing adequate funding… At trial, the CCJEF plaintiffs (had) put forth overwhelming evidence of severe resource deficiencies of inputs such as: academic and social intervention for at-risk students and students with special needs; guidance counselors, social workers, nurses, services for English Language Learners, music, art and other subjects; and reasonable class size. Judge Moukawsher’s charge was to examine the resources in the districts at issue in the case…. However, nowhere in the opinion does the judge systematically look at the actual resources present or absent in each district.”
Lecker continues: “In doing so, he redefined constitutional adequacy and ignored the plaintiffs’ overwhelming evidence of resource deficiencies in the CCJEF districts… In fact, the judge actually claimed that intervention for at-risk children was an ‘extra.'” Hence, “Moukawsher created a bare-bones definition of constitutional adequacy that the Connecticut Supreme Court clearly did not envision.” Lecker notes, however, that, ironically, to illustrate the irrationality of Connecticut’s system of education, Moukawsher enumerates severe financial deficits in the poorest districts in the state: “Here, the judge finally acknowledged the severe resource deficits… of administrators, guidance counselors, kindergarten and special education paraprofessionals, music and athletics, a shortened school year and classes of ’29 children per room—rooms where teachers might have a class with one third requiring special education, many of them speaking limited English, and almost all of them working considerably below grade level.’ ”
Examining educational inequity, anyone will discover conditions that are not purely due to disparities in school resources. However, school finance cases are traditionally grounded in the reality that while inequality is multifaceted, disparities in resources are measurable and can be remedied. Fiscal equity of funding can never address all of the issues that trouble the lives of poor children, but a fair and equitable funding system is a solid foundation for beginning. Equitable does not mean identical, however. In Connecticut, poor school districts, where the property valuation to be taxed is low, need significantly more money from the state of Connecticut to address the needs of their students, many of whom live in poverty. Many of Connecticut’s wealthy school districts, by contrast, are the suburbs serving students whose parents commute to jobs in Manhattan.
At least Judge Moukawsher did declare the current system unconstitutional. Molly Hunter, in an analysis for the Education Law Center, explains: “Separately, the court dismissed the State’s claim that local school districts bore the responsibility for education, not the state. The court quoted Connecticut Supreme Court holdings: ‘Obviously, the furnishing of education for the general public is a state function and duty,’ and ‘…in Connecticut, education is a fundamental right,’ raising education to the most important level known to law.”
Hunter identifies several additional serious problems in Judge Moukawsher’s decision: “If there was any one thing in the trial that stood out as good…. Witnesses for both sides agreed that high-quality preschool would be the best weapon to get ahead of the literacy and numeracy problems plaguing schools in impoverished cities. But, the court failed to order it.”
Hunter continues: “In striking contrast, the court took deep dives into education policy regarding teacher evaluations and students with disabilities. The court ordered policy changes for teachers and other educators that are controversial and have been proven ineffective, even harmful… ”
And finally, Hunter derides the decision’s impact on special education: “Also, many will find the court’s extensive discussion of students with disabilities and funding for their services troubling. The court indicated that funding for students with severe or multiple disabilities was irrational and not connected to ‘education’ if they were not capable of receiving an elementary and secondary education.”