Sweeping Connecticut Education Ruling Reversed

HARTFORD, Conn. (CN) —  Unraveling a decision that found Connecticut’s educational-spending policies unconstitutional, the state Supreme Court said it cannot use judicial fiat to address the plight of struggling students.

“Although the plaintiffs have convincingly demonstrated that in this state there is a gap in educational achievement between the poorest and neediest students and their more fortunate peers, disparities in educational achievement, standing alone, do not constitute proof that our state constitution’s equal protection provisions have been violated,” Chief Justice Chase Rogers wrote for the 4-3 court on Jan. 17. “The plaintiffs have not shown that this gap is the result of the state’s unlawful discrimination against poor and needy students in its provision of educational resources as opposed to the complex web of disadvantaging societal conditions over which the schools have no control.”

A representative for the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding said the group will likely file a motion for reconsideration, having spent 12 years trying to get the case to trial.

“CCJEF believes a case of this landmark magnitude should not be left dangling on such a close vote but requires instead the kind of clarity for the future of the State’s educational system that only a new trial and a definitive majority can establish,” the group’s chief consultant James Finley said.

Finley added: “Our courts are the backstop to ensure that state constitutional rights are protected when the other two branches of state government fail in their duty to do so.”

Justice Richard Palmer wrote in dissent that the state still has an obligation to help students overcome obstacles they face outside school.

“It is not enough to satisfy constitutional requirements for the state simply to set up and equip school buildings and then hire teachers,” 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 preoccupied by hunger, fear for their personal safety or other serious distractions as to render learning effectively impossible.”

“There should be no doubt [the constitution] 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,” the minority opinion states.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy meanwhile said dismissal of the case is the correct step but that “the fight to distribute greater educational dollars where there is the greatest need has not diminished.”

Malloy said 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.”

Speaking on behalf of one of the challengers, AFT Connecticut President Jan Hochadel noted the decision puts the “responsibility for addressing and resolving the underlying cause of Connecticut’s broken education funding system on our elected leaders.”

The court “essentially issued a renewed call to action,” Hochadel said.

Senate President Martin Looney, a Democrat from New Haven, said the Senate takes its educational responsibilities seriously. “Every child in Connecticut deserves a first class education,” Looney said. “Our job will not be complete until we eliminate the inequities inherent in our educational system and ensure that children in every city and every town across Connecticut receive a fair shot at academic success.”

House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, a Republican from Derby, said the ruling provides an opportunity for the Legislature.

“Everyone involved is frustrated that a comprehensive solution to this matter has eluded us,” Klarides said. “Disparities in our schools exist and that is not acceptable. But there is the will to bring the spectrum of stakeholders together and this offers new opportunities to address solutions in a comprehensive manner.”

Though the ruling reversed a sweeping decision by the trial court about the state’s failures when it comes to education, Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen said those 2016 findings made an impression.

“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,” Jepsen said. “Nothing about today’s ruling should alleviate any urgency on the part of state lawmakers to address these challenges.”

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