Court faces complex task defining ‘adequate’ education

In a landmark decision, CCJEF (Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Educational Funding) v. Rell, the Connecticut Supreme Court has guaranteed all of our students the educational standards and resources for them to succeed in higher education or the workforce, as well as fully participate in all of our democratic institutions. The court has sent the case back to the trial court, charging it with defining exactly what “adequate funding” of education means.

“Adequacy” of educational funding has long been a difficult and controversial issue. The court said that defining those contours is the court’s job and not the legislature’s. It also said that a free public education is a constitutional right in Connecticut. In contrast, a free education is not a right in the US Constitution. In plain words, the court ruled that it had “skin in the game” of deciding whether educational funding was fair and equitable in our state.

Court decisions are often a challenge to read. However, this decision identified with great clarity the ten “essential components of a suitable educational opportunity.” Among these are: “high quality preschool; highly qualified administrators and teachers; a rigorous curriculum and a wide breadth of courses; and a school environment that is healthy, safe, well maintained and conducive to learning.” These were precisely the components presented by CCJEF.

When the trial court ultimately rules on the issues, and the legislature subsequently implements that ruling, it is imperative that both address “standards of service.” A standard of service defines what service a student should receive, how much of it and what it looks like. Since the issue is of Constitutional dimension, specific direction for the legislature is vital.

The trial court must first determine what results are essential. Once those results are identified, the court must identify what it will take to reach them.

“Standards of service” for an effective pre-school need to address: what kind of and how many staff are needed (such as teachers, aides, social workers and psychologists); what kinds of materials and supplies are needed for a year and what do they cost; what contract services may be needed such as speech and physical therapists; what facilities are necessary and what do they cost to operate; how much will transportation cost?

Similarly, how do we provide appropriate services for at-risk students until we identify what “at-risk” means? Is there a need for a continuum of services to serve this diverse group? Will there be a need for a longer school year, for a longer school day? Will there be unique staffing, professional development and working conditions necessary to serve at-risk students. We know that mentoring reduces drop out rates, what does it take to organize and sustain a successful mentoring program.

Finally, addressing a rigorous curriculum is complex and wide reaching. Adequacy must speak to, “How much of what?” At elementary schools, how much of what kinds of science should a student receive at each grade level? How much of which of the arts should a student take each year they are in school? Given problems with obesity among youth, how much physical education should a student receive every year? In high schools, what is the cost of assuring that every student has the chance to have three years of science, or four years of mathematics? Is a student entitled to not having to compete with more than 250 other students for a guidance counselor’s time?

Adequacy can and should be defined with several measures. What are the services to which any student is entitled? What are the actual costs of the services including staff materials, equipment, facilities, transportation, operational overhead like administrative time, and support services like child care? What are the intended results and what does it cost to evaluate results? There must be the will and commitment to ask each of these questions multiple times in multiple places to actually define “adequacy.”

The Connecticut Supreme Court has opened the door to an exciting, important and vital new venture in making public education more successful, and enabling children to be more successful in their lives as adults. We now have to commit to the challenging journey to achieving both kinds of success.

Nicholas A. Fischer
 is superintendent of the New London public schools, and former associate commissioner for finance and accountability, Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

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