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Sweeping Education Ruling Overturned by Connecticut Supreme Court

The state Supreme Court has overturned a Superior Court judge's controversial ruling that would have upended the state's educational-funding scheme and mandated a vast overhaul of teacher evaluations, educational standards and special-education services.

By Matthew Kauffman and Edmund H. Mahony

The state Supreme Court has overturned a Superior Court judge's controversial ruling that would have upended the state's educational-funding scheme and mandated a vast overhaul of teacher evaluations, educational standards and special-education services.

Fourteen months after Judge Thomas Moukawsher released his blockbuster decision in a case brought by the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding, the high court put the brakes on his far-reaching order, declaring that the state had met its minimal constitutional obligations and beyond that, it is up the legislature to set educational policy.

A minority of justices favored sending the case back to Moukawsher for a new trial, but were outvoted, meaning the ruling likely brings an end to more than a decade of litigation.

The high court acknowledged many of the educational inequities highlighted by the coalition, known as CCJEF, saying the plaintiffs had "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."

But the justices ruled that the judiciary's power is limited to determining whether the state has met the constitutional mandate to provide a minimally adequate education, including paying for minimally adequate facilities, materials, curricula and teachers.

"Courts simply are not in a position to determine whether schools in poorer districts would be better off expending scarce additional resources on more teachers, more computers, more books, more technical staff, more meals, more guidance counselors, more health care, more English instruction, greater preschool availability, or some other resource," Chief Justice Chase T. Rogers wrote for a majority of four justices. "Such judgments are quintessentially legislative in nature."

The suit, first brought in 2005 against then-Gov. M. Jodi Rell, had long been seen primarily as a challenge to Connecticut's formula for funding education, which relies on a combination of local property taxes and state aid. But in a 90-page ruling released in September 2016, Moukawsher waded into some of the thorniest issues in public education, including grade-level standards, hiring practices and the high cost of specialized services for students with significant intellectual disabilities.

On the funding question, Moukawsher ruled that the state spent enough on education overall to satisfy the state constitution, but said a policy "that allows rich towns to raid money desperately needed by poor towns makes a mockery of the state's constitutional duty to provide adequate educational opportunities to all students."

"To be constitutional," Moukawsher ruled, "the state's chief educational policies do not have to be richly funded, but they must at least be rational, sustainable, and verifiable."

But the justices rejected that analysis as "constitutionally irrelevant," writing that Moukawsher correctly described the elements of a constitutionally adequate education and correctly ruled that the state met those requirements -- and should have stopped there.

In a separate opinion, Justice Richard N. Palmer, joined by two other justices, agreed with the majority that Moukawsher had exceeded his mandate in ordering broad educational reforms. But he also wrote that Moukawsher applied too narrow a standard in his threshold finding that state spending on education was constitutionally adequate.

Palmer wrote that Moukawsher should have considered the specific plight of individual, poor school districts and their students before concluding that state spending overall met the constitutional minimum.

"The trial court's factual findings indicate that some of our state's most disadvantaged students may not be receiving a minimally adequate education, which is their constitutional right," Palmer wrote. And for that reason, he would have ordered a new trial, with instructions to consider more than desks and pencils and teachers.

"It is not enough to satisfy constitutional requirements for the state simply to set up and equip school buildings and then hire teachers to teach therein," Palmer wrote. "Reasonable efforts must be made to ensure that those students who would avail themselves of the educational opportunity have a means of getting themselves to school and, once there, are not so preoccupied by hunger, fear for their personal safety, or other serious distractions as to render learning effectively impossible."

Attorney General George Jepsen praised the ruling, while calling on state officials not to lose sight of educational inequalities in the state.

"The court correctly determined that Connecticut's public education system and its public education funding do not violate constitutional standards and that -- absent such a constitutional deficiency -- education policy decisions rest with the representative branches of government," Jepsen said in a statement. "That said, the trial court's ruling in this case did identify profound educational challenges that deserve continuing significant and sustained action on the part of our state's policymakers. Nothing about today's ruling should alleviate any urgency on the part of state lawmakers to address these challenges."

Jim Finley, principal consultant with CCJEF, said the coalition was "deeply disappointed" with the court's ruling.

"The Supreme Court decision appeared to agree with CCJEF's contention that many of our public school students have not been given an adequate and equitable education opportunity, but the court declined to assert themselves in trying to correct that," he said. "The reason CCJEF has been in the court system since 2005 is because the legislative and executive branches of government in Connecticut have not protected the constitutional rights of all of our public school students and those students were looking to the state courts to protect their right."

Finley said the coalition would likely file a motion asking the court to reconsider its ruling. Such motions, however, are rarely successful.

Moukawsher's ruling rocked educational leaders and advocates with its unexpectedly broad scope and its simultaneous finding that the state spent enough money on education, but spent it so haphazardly as to violate the constitution.

"Considering the fundamental right of a child to an education in Connecticut, the state cannot meet its educational duties under the constitution without adhering to a reasoned and discernible formula for distributing state education aid," Moukawsher wrote. "Beyond a reasonable doubt, Connecticut is defaulting on its constitutional duty to provide adequate public school opportunities because it has no rational, substantial and verifiable plan to distribute money for education aid."

He then took aim at other areas of what he considered irrational educational policy that failed to "rationally, substantially, and verifiably connect an education degree with an education" -- measured in part by whether all students were meeting objective standards of achievement at third, eighth and 12th grade. Among the forceful findings in Moukawsher's ruling:

* "The lack of a substantial and rational high-school graduation standard has resulted in unready children being sent along to high school, handed degrees, and left -- if they can scrape together the money -- to buy basic skills at a community college."

* "The way educators are hired, fired, paid and evaluated isn't sensibly linked to its value in teaching children."

* "With the state requiring expensive services but doing nothing to see they're going to the right people in the right way, special education spending is also adrift."

Moukawsher called for revamping all of those areas, but left it to the other branches of government -- with a 180-day deadline -- to bring him a remedy. Instead, both sides in the suit sought review by the Supreme Court, with the state seeking to have the entire ruling thrown out, and the coalition objecting to Moukawsher's call to rewrite the rules on providing special-education services.

Attorneys for the state told the Supreme Court justices that Moukawsher's broad order had no legal basis because he did not find that the state's public schools fail to provide adequate educational opportunities. And they noted that the state's Education Cost Sharing grants redirect vast amounts of public dollars from wealthier towns to poorer towns.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs disputed Moukawsher's finding that state spending on education was constitutionally adequate, saying the judge should have ruled that the state must devote sufficient resources to allow a "meaningful opportunity" for all students to become responsible citizens and succeed in college or the workforce.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said in a statement that despite the ruling, there was still an urgent need to "distribute greater educational dollars where there is the greatest need."

"While we made some progress last session in establishing a more predictable and transparent funding formula, we haven't gone far enough," Malloy wrote. "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."

State Rep. Andy Fleischmann, a West Hartford Democrat and co-chair of the legislature's education committee, said a ruling upholding Moukawsher's decision "would have put a single, unelected judge in charge of virtually all state education policy, so that was a grave concern."

"Just to be clear, I believe there is still a lot of work for us to do to ensure that every child in Connecticut gets a top quality education," Fleischmann said. "Under this ruling, that responsibility rests where it ought to: with the General Assembly and the executive branch."

Jennifer Alexander, chief executive officer of the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now, an education advocacy group, said the outcome of the CCJEF case should not distract from the need to improve educational opportunity in the state.

"This case centered around a state constitutional question, but no matter what the court ruled about the constitution, we have a moral obligation to make sure that we provide every kid with an excellent education," Alexander said. "At the end of the day, families and voters expect their leaders to make sure that all Connecticut kids have a world class education and we have a lot of work to do to meet that goal."

Courant staff writers Kathleen Megan and Christopher Keating contributed to this report.

(c)2018 The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Conn.)

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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