On January 17, 2018, the Connecticut Supreme Court, in a 4-3 decision, affirmed in part the September 2016 trial court ruling in CCJEF v. Rell, a case challenging inadequate state school funding and the significant funding disparities between high- and low-poverty urban and suburban schools.
The Supreme Court correctly reversed the trial court’s unfortunate foray into a range of matters not at issue in the case, including teacher evaluation, testing and special education policy. The trial judge’s positions on these collateral issues led some to quickly slap the “landmark” label on his ruling.
However, the Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s ruling that Connecticut’s funding of its public schools was adequate and did not violate the education guarantee in the State constitution. And, even worse for Connecticut’s disadvantaged school children, the Court may have set the lowest legal bar in any state for what comprises a constitutionally adequate education.
The CCJEF case was filed in 2005. In 2010, the Connecticut Supreme Court permitted the case to proceed to trial. The sixty-one day trial ended in August 2016, and the trial court ruling followed in September 2016.
The Trial Court Ruling
The CCJEF trial judge concluded that because Connecticut, on a statewide level, provides “minimally adequate” teachers, curricula, facilities and instrumentalities of learning, the plaintiffs did not establish a constitutional violation. Yet the judge also made voluminous findings of severe deprivations in Bridgeport, New Britain, New London and other high poverty districts, including a dearth of specialists for children behind in literacy; a lack of services for homeless students; inadequate bilingual teachers, guidance counselors, psychologists, and translators; and limited access to quality preschool.
The judge, however, refused to take these resource deficits into account in determining funding adequacy. Instead, the judge ruled that he could not consider any educational resources beyond four bare-bones resources – teachers, curricula, facilities and instrumentalities. The judge also decided to evaluate the evidence on these narrow resource categories on a statewide level, rather than in the specific high-poverty districts that were the focus of the trial.
The Supreme Court Ruling
In affirming the trial court on school funding, the Supreme Court majority acknowledged that the evidence demonstrated that the state’s high-poverty districts suffered from a lack of sufficient educational resources, particularly those for at-risk students. The majority further admitted “that the lack of such support services makes it extremely difficult for many students in the state’s neediest school districts to take advantage of the state’s educational offerings.”
Despite these findings, the majority concluded that the State’s constitutional obligation is limited to only providing the bare minimum in four limited categories: teachers, curricula, facilities and instrumentalities. The Court further held that programs, staff and services necessary for poor, at-risk children to succeed in school do not fall within these narrow categories and, consequently, the State has no obligation to fund resources for these children no matter how it impacts their education.
In a bizarre twist, the majority’s conclusion that the State’s obligation is limited to the barest of minimums – and does not include addressing the needs of at-risk student populations – relied on a concurring opinion by Justice Palmer in its 2010 CCJEF ruling. But in a strongly worded dissent, Justice Palmer flatly disagreed with the majority’s interpretation of his 2010 opinion:
There should be no doubt, then, that … my  concurrence in Rell, requires not only that the state provide the essential components of a minimally adequate education, including facilities, instrumentalities, curricula, and personnel, but also that some reasonable effort be made to ensure that those modalities are designed to address the basic educational needs of at risk learners in under-privileged communities.
Justice Palmer noted that, in fulfilling its constitutional obligation under the Education Article, the State must “tak[e] into account any special needs of a particular local school system,” explaining that children from poor communities “may have to overcome a host of obstacles before they are able to attend to fractions and Fitzgerald.”
Justice Palmer also noted the universal agreement at trial that preschool is “perhaps the single most effective tool for narrowing achievement gaps and preparing underprivileged students for success at the primary and secondary levels.” The Justice went on to cite the evidence at trial that many children in Connecticut’s most impoverished districts had no access to preschool. He contended that “the state is required to take reasonable steps to ensure that students are able to learn, with an eye toward all of the available tools and their proven effectiveness.”
Finally, in decrying the majority’s crabbed and constricted view of the State’s constitutional obligation, Justice Palmer declared that “[i]t is not enough to seek success in some places, for some children.” Rather, the Justice made clear that “the educational system must be reasonably designed to achieve results in every district and neighborhood. Our state constitution simply will not allow us to leave our neediest children behind.”
A Severe Blow to Education Justice
Over 200,000 Connecticut students, or 37% of statewide enrollment, are economically disadvantaged. Over 36,000 students are English Language Learners, and 77,000 are students with disabilities. Many of these children are concentrated in the state’s poorest communities, such as New London and Bridgeport. The record developed at the CCJEF trial convincingly demonstrated that Connecticut’s school finance regime deprives these children of educational resources essential to afford them the same opportunity to succeed in school as their more affluent, suburban peers.
In the face of this overwhelming record, a majority of Justices on the Connecticut Supreme Court turned a blind eye to these children and their educational needs. In refusing to acknowledge the stark reality that at-risk children in high poverty schools require additional staff, programs and services, the Justices dealt a grave blow to the constitutional rights of the state’s most vulnerable school children. In so doing, the CCJEF ruling perpetuates the state’s longstanding, shameful legacy of “two Connecticuts” – suburban and urban, separate and unequal.
It is now up to students, parents, advocates and those concerned about Connecticut’s future to pressure political leaders to do what the Justices failed to do: safeguard and effectuate the education rights of all Connecticut school children.
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