From Funding to Testing, Court Orders Sweeping Reforms for Connecticut Schools
By Daniela Altimari
Declaring that "Connecticut is defaulting on its constitutional duty" to fairly educate its poorest children, a Superior Court judge on Wednesday ordered the state to come up with a new funding formula for public schools.
Judge Thomas Moukawsher's unexpectedly far-reaching decision also directed the state to devise clear standards for both the elementary and high school levels, including developing a graduation test. He also ordered a complete overhaul of Connecticut's system of evaluating teachers, principals and superintendents. And he demanded a change in the "irrational" way the state funds special education services.
Moukawsher's mandates come with a tight deadline: The remedies he is ordering must be submitted to the court within 180 days. It is unclear how the state Department of Education, the legislature and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy will come up with solutions, within six months, to complicated problems that have plagued public education in Connecticut for decades.
"Nothing here was done lightly or blindly," Moukawsher said, reading his entire 90-page decision from the bench, a highly unusual undertaking that took close to three hours. "The court knows what its ruling means for many deeply ingrained practices, but it also has a marrow-deep understanding that if they are to succeed where they are most strained, schools have to be about teaching children and nothing else."
The much-anticipated decision is the culmination of an 11-year legal battle between the state and the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding, an alliance of municipalities, boards of education, teachers' unions and education advocacy groups. The coalition filed a lawsuit against then-Gov. M. Jodi Rell, alleging that the state's education cost-sharing formula violates the state constitution and places an unfair burden on local property taxes to support school spending.
A spokesman for Attorney General George Jepsen, whose office defended the state in the case, declined to say whether the office intends to appeal the ruling.
"We are reviewing this decision in consultation with our client agencies and decline to comment further at this time," spokesman Samuel Carmody said.
Moukawsher did not stipulate what the state's level of funding for public schools should be, but he declared that the current system is failing Connecticut's students.
"So change must come. The state has to accept that the schools are its blessing and its burden, and if it cannot be wise, it must at least be sensible," Moukawsher said.
Members of the coalition praised the judge's ruling. "This is a landmark victory for Connecticut's public school students," said the group's president, Newtown Selectman Herb Rosenthal. "The court's decision will have a significant impact on education funding and opportunities in Connecticut."
Municipal leaders also praised the breadth and scope of Moukawsher's decision. A stunned Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton, who sat in the wood-paneled courtroom as the ruling was read, called it "a sweeping indictment of the education system in Connecticut. ... He left no stone unturned."
Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim, who was also in court, called the decision "a huge game changer ... I think it compels action."
New Britain Mayor Erin Stewart said the ruling means "the state can no longer ignore its poorest cities and lowest-performing education systems. The biggest piece is the achievement gap: In Connecticut you have the poorest of the poor and the richest of the rich."
And Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin said the ruling "shines a bright light on the profound inequalities that exist between school districts and holds out the promise of real reform to our educational system and funding structure."
But other members of the diverse coalition that brought the lawsuit viewed the ruling more critically. Sheila Cohen, president of the Connecticut Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union, expressed disappointment that Moukawsher failed to prescribe a fix for the funding disparity between wealthy and poor school districts.
"Unfortunately, the court declined to provide any remedy for the disparity in resources and revenue for students in the state's poorest communities -- the essence and heart of the ... litigation," Cohen said. "Also, the court's attempt to impose one-size-fits-all mandates that erode flexibility and local education control penalizes the majority of Connecticut's schools."
In his ruling, Moukawsher branded the teacher evaluation process "dysfunctional" and said it is based on inflated standards that have resulted in nearly every educator graded as proficient or exemplary. This drew a sharp response from Jan Hochadel, president of the American Federation of Teachers-Connecticut.
Moukawsher's comments regarding accountability and teacher evaluations "were not just disappointing, but disrespectful of education professionals."
The extraordinary ruling orders the state to revamp virtually all areas of public education -- from the hiring and firing of teachers, to special education services, to education standards for elementary and high school students. He also criticized the state's generous reimbursement policy for school construction projects, especially in an age of decreasing enrollment.
"To get rid of an irrational policy, adopt a rational one," Moukawsher said in his ruling. "It's the court's job to require the state to have one. It's the state's job to develop one. The court will judge the state's solutions, and if they meet the standards described in this decision, uphold them."
The case highlighted longstanding inequities between Connecticut's urban and largely poor school districts and the state's wealthier -- and higher achieving -- suburban school districts. Moukawsher was sharply critical of Connecticut's "befuddled and misdirected" education policies that have left cities without adequate resources and denied children their constitutional right to an equal education.
"We are very, very happy that very soon, we hope, the situation for Connecticut students will dramatically improve," Joseph Moodhe, lawyer for the plaintiffs, said outside the courthouse, moments after Moukawsher finished reading his decision. "We are confident that the educational department, as well as the legislators and the executive branch, will give careful consideration to the findings ... and make appropriate efforts to address them in the coming months."
Malloy, who has made education policy a cornerstone of his administration, said he welcomes the "conversation this decision brings."
"Since I took office, the state has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in education with an overwhelming share directed at supporting our students who need it the most," the Democratic governor said in a statement. "These investments are working -- students across the board are showing growth in math and reading on recent state tests. At the same time, we know there is more work to do and we remain resolute in our commitment to improve educational outcomes for all our students."
The ruling sets the stage for a showdown at the Capitol over education policy when the legislature convenes in January. "We want to use this as a moment of positive change," said Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff of Norwalk. "This could be our clarion moment for education reform."
Several lawmakers questioned the tight time frame set by Moukawsher. House Republican Leader Themis Klarides said a six-month deadline to come up with the proposals demanded by the judge was "not realistic."
Deputy Majority Leader Bob Godfrey of Danbury agreed and said nothing is likely to happen before March.
"We're already a quarter of the way through the fiscal year. We can't go to small towns and say, 'Give us back the money.' School is in session. This is going to be a lengthy debate, and it won't be limited just to the formula."
Godfrey said the ruling corrects the huge gap in education funding between rich and poor communities. "The political problem is getting 76 votes in the House and 19 in the Senate to reform it because [lawmakers] are never going to cut education spending to their towns," he said. "But we're going to be forced to do exactly that."
New Britain school board President Sharon Beloin-Saavedra said she hopes the General Assembly doesn't allow politics to derail the drive for education funding reform, but acknowledged the likelihood of suburban legislators working to maintain their communities' state aid.
"If the state can't afford additional dollars and it's a reallocation of the existing pie, you'll have people screaming -- the people who are going to be losing a share," she said.
In addition to a lengthy battle at the legislature, the ruling could set off more legal scuffling. During the trial, which lasted 60 days, lawyers in the attorney general's office argued that the state's investment in education is enough to provide an adequate education. They cited the substantial resources Connecticut devotes to its public schools, including hundreds of millions of additional dollars directed to low-performing districts in recent years.
Moukawsher was unimpressed. "Too little money is chasing too many needs," he said, warning lawmakers not to make a "mockery of the state's constitution."
In urban districts, "most of the students are being let down by patronizing and illusory degrees," Moukawsher said. "The state is failing poor students by giving them unearned degrees" by graduating them without the skills needed for higher education."
In particular, the judge noted a dysfunctional teacher evaluation system where "everyone succeeds" and where student success isn't considered. "Good teachers can't be recognized and bad teachers can't be removed," Moukawsher said.
Moukawsher blasted the General Assembly for a recent round of cuts to public schools in the state's poorest cities. "There could not be a worse time to move education money from struggling school districts," Moukawsher said. "But the state did it anyway."
The court cannot dictate the amount of education spending, Moukawsher concluded, "but spending ... must follow a formula influenced only by school needs and good practices."
The sweeping implications of the case, which began as a project for Yale Law School students, were evident from the start, said David Rosen, a New Haven lawyer who teaches at the school's Educational Adequacy Project. "This was a high stakes case from Day 1," he said. "The fact that the court has now ruled in favor of Connecticut's children is simply momentous."
Courant staff writers Christopher Keating, Jenna Carlesso, Matthew Kauffman, Kathleen Megan, Kathleen McWilliams, Don Stacom and Shawn R. Beals contributed to this story.
(c)2016 The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Conn.)