Problems with the CCJEF Decision – Will equity without adequacy be enough to help Connecticut’s neediest children? (By Wendy Lecker)

Wendy Lecker, an education advocate, legal expert and Stamford Advocate columnist produces a MUST READ analysis about some of the extremely serious problems associated with the Judge’s recent ruling in the CCJEF v. Rell school funding case.  The article first appeared in the Stamford Advocate and other Hearst newspapers.  You can read and comment on this critically important piece at: http://www.stamfordadvocate.com/news/article/Wendy-Lecker-Ruling-raises-hope-for-poorest-9212622.php

Wendy Lecker writes;

On Sept. 7, Judge Thomas Moukawsher issued his post-trial decision in Connecticut’s school funding case, CCJEF v. Rell. His sweeping decision covered funding, which I will address here, and education policy, which I will address in my next column.

On the funding front, the outcome was mixed. While the judge did declare Connecticut’s system of distributing school aid unconstitutional, he found that the state was providing adequate funding. In doing so, he redefined constitutional adequacy and ignored the plaintiffs’ overwhelming evidence of resource deficiencies in the CCJEF districts.

At trial, the CCJEF plaintiffs 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 and determine whether those resources were so inadequate as to violate Connecticut’s constitution.

However, nowhere in the opinion does the judge systematically look the actual resources present or absent in each district.

Rather, the judge focused only on three types of resources: facilities, instrumentalities of learning, and teachers. He declared that since, in his view, the state provides the “bare minimum,” in these three areas, the plaintiffs did not prove that state funding is constitutionally inadequate.

Moukawsher claimed to base his ruling on the 2010 Connecticut Supreme Court plurality decision allowing the CCJEF case to proceed to trial. He claimed to rely specifically on Justice Richard Palmer’s concurring opinion, which is seen as the controlling opinion.

Moukawsher stated that Palmer limited his focus to those three narrow resources. This is untrue. Palmer acknowledged a much wider range of potential resource deficits, including class size, language instruction, technology, intervention for at-risk students, and a safe and secure learning environment.

Judge Moukawsher’s decision ignored the wide range of essential educational resources absent in the CCJEF districts. In fact, the judge actually claimed that intervention for at-risk children was an “extra.”

As a result, his ruling does an injustice to the children suffering in those districts.

Moukawsher also attempted to claim Palmer’s definition of a “minimally adequate” education was narrower than the plurality opinion, and that it required only the “bare minimum” of resources.

However, Palmer actually declared that “I perceive no difference between an educational opportunity that is minimally adequate and an educational opportunity that the plurality characterizes as ‘soundly basic.’”

Moukawsher created a bare-bones definition of constitutional adequacy that the Connecticut Supreme Court clearly did not envision.

The one ray of light in this funding decision is Moukawsher’s finding that the state’s system for distributing school aid is unconstitutional. He ruled that “(b)eyond 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 and school construction.”

To illustrate Connecticut’s irrational system, Moukawsher cited the legislature’s decision last session to cut school aid for poor districts while providing more aid for wealthy districts. Here, the judge finally acknowledged the severe resource deficits caused by these cuts: 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.”

The judge declared that a system that “allows rich towns to raid money desperately needed by poor towns makes a mockery of the state’s constitutional duty.”

The judge gave Connecticut six months to create a new funding system that applies “educationally-based principles to allocate funds in light of the special circumstances of the state’s poorest communities.”

The opportunity to craft a new funding system no doubt has the charter lobby champing at the bit to snatch some of that funding intended for Connecticut’s poorest districts. However, the court’s ruling aims to stem the state’s penchant for draining funds from impoverished public school districts. Following the court’s logic, a funding scheme that would allow school aid to flow to a parallel system of privately managed charter schools while leaving poor districts in dire circumstances can also be seen as unconstitutionally irrational.

While not ideal, the CCJEF decision highlights that the needs of students in our poorest districts, not political influence, should drive education funding in Connecticut.