Judge Orders Sweeping Changes for CT Schools

     HARTFORD, Conn. (CN) — Reading his 90-page ruling aloud to the court, a judge spent hours Wednesday slamming Connecticut for “defaulting on its constitutional duty to provide adequate public school opportunities.”
     The ruling by Hartford Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher gives the state 180 days to devise a new funding formula for public education.
     That deadline is one of several Moukawsher laid out for the state. In addition to the funding formula, it must tackle new high school graduation requirements, a definition of elementary education, a formula for funding special education, and a new teacher-evaluation system that ties teacher performance more closely to student achievement.
     Moukawsher was careful though not to dictate how the state conceives the new formulas and definitions.
     “Without a court order, a plan adopted today can be ignored tomorrow,” Moukawsher said. “That’s what happened with the Educational Cost Sharing formula.”
     Local elected officials assembled in the court Wednesday to hear the decision along with educators who brought the lawsuit more than a decade ago.
     The typed copy of the ruling, clocking in at 254 pages, includes 164 pages of appendices and more than 1,000 findings of fact.
     Moukawsher said it has been three years since the state Legislature largely abandoned the formula that distributed state aid to all 169 cities and towns. In lieu of a formula the state has been allocating a set dollar amount to each town over the past few years, Moukawsher said.
     Instead of imposing his own funding formula, Moukawsher said he will review the state’s proposed remedy in 180 days. That means the state will be required to come up with a formula in the middle of the 2017 legislative session.
     He said a formula “must apply educationally-based principles to allocate funds in light of the special circumstances of the state’s poorest communities.”
     “An approach 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,” the ruling continues.
     Moukawsher said the state must also define elementary and secondary education.
     “A spending scheme really can’t be said to be aimed at elementary and secondary school education when the state doesn’t even enforce a coherent idea of what these words mean,” Moukawsher said.
     Moukawsher likened Connecticut’s definition of secondary education to “a sugar-cube boat.”
     “It dissolves before it’s half launched,” he said.
     The judge went onto describe state education policies as “befuddled and misdirected.” He said the state has largely been graduating high school students without actually educating them.
     Moukawsher said 70 percent of community college students don’t have basic literacy and numeracy skills, yet they still graduated from Connecticut high schools.
     As for the new teacher evaluation system, Moukawsher said a “system where everyone succeeds is useless.” He said there’s no connection between teacher performance and student achievement.
     But the case was filed largely to highlight the inequity in educational opportunity between Connecticut’s large urban school districts and higher-achieving suburban school districts.
     The decision, which took nearly three hours for Moukawsher to read aloud in court, was applauded by Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton and Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim.
     “It’s the most sweeping education decision in decades,” Boughton said.
     It’s tough decision and will require the state to think hard about the issue, Boughton added, but like many things the “devil is in the details.”
     Ganim, whose city is the largest and also one of the poorest in the state, said the decision is a long time coming. It’s at least the third education lawsuit that’s been filed over the past three decades. Ganim called the decision a “game changer” for Connecticut’s children and urged the state not to appeal it.
     Samuel Carmody, a spokesman in the attorney general’s office, had little to say about the verdict.
     “We are reviewing this decision in consultation with our client agencies and decline to comment further at this time,” Carmody said.
     The Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding represented the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
     That group’s president, Herb Rosenthal, said he believes the decision supported almost all of the arguments the coalition made over a 60-day trial.
     “Now that the court has found that the essential aspects of the existing education system is unconstitutional, it must begin the all important task of constructing a specific remedy to address the system’s inadequacies,” Rosenthal said.
     Rosenthal said he doesn’t believe the Legislature will be able to complete the job of rewriting most of the underpinnings of Connecticut’s education system without additional funding, even though the judge didn’t mandate an increase in funding.
     “I don’t see how it can be done without more funding,” Rosenthal said. “It will be up to the legislature.”
     Joseph Moodhe of Debevoise and Plimpton, who litigated the case on behalf of CCJEF, said they will be monitoring the state’s proposals closely.
     He said they are hoping for a rapid effort to address the comments of the court by the legislature and the executive branch.
     Jim Finley, a CCJEF consultant and lobbyist, said it’s possible a special session will be needed to tackled some of the issues if they don’t complete the work during the 2017 session, which adjourns in June.
     Despite the scathing indictment of Connecticut’s education system and the lack of progress students in many districts are making, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy maintained that he’s moved the system forward during his six years in office.
     “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,” Malloy said Wednesday in a statement. “These investments come with greater accountability, because we know that delivering a quality education isn’t a matter of funding alone, but a matter of how valuable resources — time, money, and talent — are allocated.”
     Malloy said he believes the investments are paying off and students are showing improvements in reading and math, but the court’s decision drew a different conclusion.
     The court decision cites the latest standardized testing as showing that 80 percent to 90 percent of poor students failed to reach the minimum standards for high school reading. In Bridgeport just 1.9 percent of students were on track to be college and career ready.
     Countless teachers from Bridgeport, Windham, New London and New Britain testified that they graduated their students to the next grade even though the children were able to read only at kindergarten levels.
     
     Pool photos via Stephanie Aaronson with the Wall Street Journal

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