School decision presents another challenge to cash-strapped state

A landmark state Supreme Court ruling Monday gave renewed hope to a coalition of municipal officials and education leaders hoping to force the state to pump billions of dollars more into its public schools.

But with the state already facing years of massive budget deficits, the price tag for the coalition’s effort to overhaul the state’s school finance system could be staggering.

Sen. Thomas P. Gaffey, D-Meriden, said he agrees that the current system of funding education, with its heavy reliance on the property tax, is broken. But fixing it, especially in today’s economic climate, will be extremely difficult.

“For this to change as dramatically as the plaintiffs intend it to change, it’s going to take an awful lot of political courage from whoever is the next governor, working with the General Assembly,” he said.

The court ruled Monday that Connecticut schoolchildren are guaranteed an adequate standard of quality in their public schools — a crucial legal victory for the coalition, which is suing the state over what it says is a broken and unfair system of paying for public education.

It is the most significant ruling on school finance since another lawsuit, Horton vs. Meskill, radically altered the state’s school finance system more than three decades ago.

The decision makes educational quality a central factor in the argument that the state has failed to adequately fund its lowest-performing schools.

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Dianne Kaplan deVries of CCJEF

“This asserts once and for all that Connecticut schoolchildren have a constitutional right to a quality education,” said Dianne Kaplan deVries, project director for the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding (CCJEF).

When the suit was filed five years ago, the coalition issued a study projecting that the state would have to spend as much as $2 billion a year more to bring students up to federal academic standards.

Although some officials see the cost as a barrier, one leading economist said the state has the capacity to raise enough revenue to close at least some of that gap.

“In Connecticut, we tend to see everything as an expense, but improving our educational system will make Connecticut a more competitive place in the long run,” said University of Connecticut economist Fred Carstensen, who praised the court ruling.

“I think it’s encouraging. We have a huge challenge in Connecticut in our educational system,” said Carstensen, who heads the Connecticut Center for Economic Analysis. “What people need to remember is that a lot of these things contribute to our future economic health.”

The coalition filed the suit, CCJEF vs. Rell, on behalf of 15 students and their families, contending the state’s failure to suitably fund public schools limited their ability to take full advantage of college education or find meaningful employment. The suit says some schools are seriously lacking in “inputs” that constitute an adequate education–everything from pre-school to career counseling.

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However, in 2007, Hartford Superior Court Judge Joseph Shortall ruled that the state constitution does not guarantee a minimum standard of quality for public schools. The decision, in effect, gutted the coalition’s central legal argument involving educational adequacy. The coalition immediately appealed the ruling.

In Monday’s decision, the state Supreme Court overturned that ruling, saying the state constitution requires “that the public schools provide their students with an education suitable to give them the opportunity to be responsible citizens able to participate fully in democratic institutions, such as jury service and voting, and to prepare them to progress to institutions of higher education, or to attain productive employment and otherwise to contribute to the state’s economy.”

The case now returns to Superior Court, where a trial could be a year or two away.

Gov. M. Jodi Rell issued a statement saying that while the case continues, she is committed to maintaining state school aid at current levels despite the state’s fiscal crisis.

The coalition contends that current funding levels are inadequate and that school funding relies too heavily on property taxes, forcing towns to cut back on everything from police services to street repairs.

Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said the decision will require the governor and legislature, as well as a lower court judge, “to closely consider the meaning of ‘minimally adequate education.'”

The decision was a complex one, with Justice Flemming L. Norcott Jr, writing a plurality opinion joined by Justices Joette Katz and Barry Schaller. Justice Richard N. Palmer wrote a concurring opinion, as did Schaller. There also were two dissents, one written by Justice Christine S. Vertefeuille and the other by Justice Peter T. Zarella joined by Justice C. Ian McLachlan.

“Interpreting the education clause . . . requires the conclusion that the state constitution guarantees children the right to an adequate education,” Schaller wrote in his concurring opinion.

However, Zarella warned that the decision sets the court “on a path that will lead to decades of confusion and produce a trail of wasteful litigation.”

He added, “Judges will become legislators because courts will now be allowed, and very likely required, to define minimum educational ‘inputs’ and ‘outputs’ in order to determine whether the state has satisfied its purported constitutional mandate to provide Connecticut schoolchildren with a ‘suitable’ education.”

The coalition alleges serious discrepancies at some public schools in services and resources such as preschool classes, libraries, technology, hours of instruction, class size, textbooks, special education programs and curriculum. It cites cases such as Lincoln Elementary School in New Britain, where 50 percent of kindergarten students had attended preschool programs, compared with 76 percent statewide. At Lincoln, there were no extra remedial math classes even though many students there struggled with math.

Merrill Gay, a coalition member, said has been fighting to improve school finance systems since his daughter, now a high school senior, was in elementary school in New Britain.

“One of every three students who started kindergarten with my daughter – they’re not going to graduate this year. . . . That’s what’s going on in New Britain,” he said.

The problems are similar in Hartford, said Mayor Eddie Perez. “Two thousand kids enter our school system . . . each year,” he said during a press conference with other coalition members. “Each and every year they fall further behind. Less than 50 percent of them graduate. Less than 30 percent go off to institutions of higher education.”

On national tests of reading and mathematics, Connecticut’s poorest children lag farther behind their more well-to-do classmates than in any other state.

The court based its decision, in part, on constitutional guarantees established in the 1977 Horton vs. Meskill school finance case and the 1996 Sheff vs. O’Neill school desegregation ruling. In addition, the court cited similar school funding cases based on state constitutional grounds in New York, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Tennessee and the state of Washington.

“For the first time, the Connecticut Supreme Court recognized that schoolchildren have a fundamental right to an adequate education in broad terms” under the education clause of the state constitution, said attorney John C. Brittain, who filed a friend of the court brief supporting the coalition’s lawsuit on behalf of the state NAACP.

That clause, Article 8th, Section 1, reads simply: “There shall always be free public elementary and secondary schools in the state. The general assembly shall implement this principle by appropriate legislation.”

Coalition representatives said they will continue to hold discussions with the governor and legislature, hoping the school finance system and tax structure can be revamped without a court order.

Monday’s ruling gives a greater sense of urgency to the matter, said former Manchester Mayor Stephen T. Cassano, the coalition’s executive director.

“We’ve got 50 percent dropout rates. Something is wrong,” he said. “The court is saying you’ve got to do something about it.”

A group of Yale University law students and faculty is providing free legal services to the coalition. An earlier school finance lawsuit was filed against the state in 1998 but was dropped because of mounting legal costs.