ELC URGES CONNECTICUT SUPREME COURT TO OVERTURN SCHOOL FUNDING DECISION
March 2, 2017
Education Law Center has filed an amicus curiae brief in Connecticut’s pending school funding litigation, Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding v. Rell (CCJEF). The controversial and widely criticized September 2016 trial court ruling is now on appeal before the Connecticut Supreme Court.
CCJEF, filed in 2005, challenged Connecticut’s persistent underfunding of high need, low wealth school districts – including Bridgeport, New Britain and Danbury, a violation of the right of children to an adequate and equitable education under the State constitution. An education cost study found that Connecticut was shortchanging its public schools by over $1.5 billion dollars.
After years of procedural delays, the case went to trial in the spring and summer of 2016. The 61-day trial included testimony from 52 witnesses. On September 7, 2016, Hartford Superior Court Judge Thomas A. Moukawsher issued his decision.
In the decision, Judge Moukawsher applied an extremely narrow – and improper – standard for evaluating the resources required for a constitutionally adequate education, holding that the State need only furnish the “bare minimum” of teachers, facilities and instrumentalities of learning.
The Judge found that the high need CCJEF districts were lacking in critical resources, including reading and math intervention, guidance counselors, extended learning time, and reasonable class sizes. Yet the Judge declared resources to be “extras,” concluding that, “the very existence of these programs means the state far exceeds the bare minimum spending levels the judiciary is willing to order under the education provision.”
The trial court purported to base its definition of adequacy on New York’s landmark case, Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. State (CFE), claiming that New York’s highest court ruled that “essential” resources are limited to teachers, facilities and instrumentalities of learning.
In its amicus brief, ELC argues that Judge Moukawsher misinterpreted the CFE standard, which clearly requires a broader range of resources for an adequate education, especially additional resources targeted to assist “at-risk” students. Contrary to the Judge’s conclusion, CFE firmly establishes that the opportunity for a constitutional education must “be placed within reach of all students, including those who present with socioeconomic deficits.”
ELC’s amicus brief also describes the strong body of precedent from across the nation supporting the fundamental principle that, as part of their constitutional obligation, states must ensure that all children, including those with extraordinary needs, be afforded a meaningful opportunity to a constitutional education. Courts across the country have ruled that resources such as high quality preschool, small class size, tutoring, counseling and other programs tailored for at-risk children are essential for a constitutionally adequate education.
The brief also noted that Judge Moukawsher ignored the charge of the Connecticut Supreme Court in remanding the case for trial. That charge dictated that the trial court refine the adequacy standard as it applied to the facts developed at trial. While the trial court acknowledged the evidence in the record of deprivations in essential resources and that those deficits negatively impacted student achievement, the Judge disregarded this crucial evidence in concluding that Connecticut need only provide the bare minimum of facilities, teachers and instrumentalities of learning to the state’s neediest students.
“The CCJEF trial court’s decision is not only out of step with prevailing precedent, but also with what we know is necessary for at-risk children to succeed in school,” said ELC Senior Attorney Wendy Lecker. “If allowed to stand, this ruling will have a devastating effect on Connecticut’s most vulnerable students, who clearly need support and services beyond the bare minimum of school buildings, teachers and pencils.”
ELC is supporting the CCJEF Plaintiffs’ request that the Connecticut Supreme Court overturn Judge Moukawsher’s ruling and remand the case back to the trial court for reconsideration of the evidence under the proper constitutional standards.
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