State moves to dismiss long-standing challenge to education funding

Calling their demands “extreme and radical” as a trial date draws near, the Connecticut attorney general has asked a judge to dismiss a years-old lawsuit by parents and educators calling for more funding for education.

In a motion to dismiss filed earlier this year, Attorney General George C. Jepsen argues that since the lawsuit was originally filed in 2005, the General Assembly and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy have made major changes to state law in an effort to ensure every student is provided an adequate education. One of the basic claims of the lawsuit was that Connecticut’s educational funding is inadequate and, as a result, fails to meets the state’s constitutional obligation.

The state’s educational reforms are only a year old, however, and in his brief to Superior Court Judge Kevin Dubay, Jepsen observes that, “Two or three years is needed before the experts can properly assess, and the court can properly consider, the benefits that may be realized from Connecticut’s significant reform initiatives.”

“It is too late to evaluate the adequacy of the education system that existed at the time the lawsuit was filed,” Jepsen wrote. By the same token, he added, “It is too early to adjudicate Connecticut’s newly reformed education system.”

Jepsen said funding education is the legislature’s responsibility — not the courts.

“The bottom line is that plaintiffs’ extreme and radical requested relief would amount to taking the state’s funding decisions for public schools away from the citizens’ elected representatives…” Jepsen wrote.

But 18 parents whose children attend some of the state’s lowest-performing schools say they are tired of waiting for things to improve, said Dianne Kaplan deVries, who leads the coalition suing the state.

Despite the rhetoric, the state’s response to the coalition’s demands and the needs of Connecticut’s children — particularly those in poorer communities — has not been adequate at all, she said.

“Enough is enough. It’s time for these kids to have their day in court,” deVries said.

Since its inception in the fall of 2005, the case has garnered a lot of attention and support as mayors from Bridgeport, East Harford, Hartford, New Haven and Windham joined forces with the leaders of the state’s two teachers’ unions to sue the state. Malloy, who was mayor of Stamford at the time, also joined the suit.

In 2010 the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding Inc., won a key victory when the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that the state is responsible for providing an “adequate” education, and returned it to the lower court to determine if the state’s current level of funding is sufficient.

The state this fiscal year is expected to spend $3.8 billion on education, nearly 20 percent of the state budget.

An ‘educational underclass’

At the time of the lawsuit in the fall of 2005, schools across the state faced a long list of problems, particularly those districts in poorer communities.

At Roosevelt School in Bridgeport, the average class size far exceeded state averages. At East Hartford High School, students who fell behind in math had to catch up on their own because there were no tutors or remedial instructors.

“Once in the school [these factors] increase the chance that these students will become part of the educational underclass,” the lawsuit alleges.

In New Britain, only half the fourth graders were reading proficiently, but 99 percent were being socially promoted to fifth grade. At Bassick High School in Bridgeport, almost half the students who enter as freshman will not make it to graduation.

And while there’s widespread agreement that too many children in Connecticut are not receiving a quality education, Jepsen argues that it would be unfair to litigate constitutional violations from 2005.

In addition to linking student performance to teacher tenure and dismissal decisions, the law passed last year largely focuses on improving the state’s lowest-performing schools. The reforms direct most of $92 million in new funding to increasing enrollment in charter and magnet schools, enrolling 1,000 more students in high-quality preschool programs and paying for certain new programs in the 30 lowest-performing districts.

But deVries said the new funding pales in comparison to what’s needed. Her expert estimated in 2005 that the state was underfunding education by at least $2 billion a year.

As for the new funding provided by the legislature last year, “It’s just a bunch of pilot programs,” she said. “There will never be enough for all the students — that’s the Connecticut way.”

Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, D-New Haven, who was the leader of the legislature’s Black and Puerto Rican Caucus during the education reform debate last year, said workable programs get funded piecemeal because there’s limited money.

Take universal access to preschool — which the governor supports and was in Meriden last week promoting its impact. Offering preschool to every low-income family’s children would cost the state $43.8 million more a year. So, instead, the legislature last year created 1,000 new spots at a cost of $6.8 million.

The same can be said for full-day kindergarten — something the legislature’s Achievement Gap Task Force has been recommending for years. Implementing that program has also been sidelined until the funding is identified.

A program to help students who are behind in learning to read — one that Holder-Winfield says was successful in the handful of districts where it was implemented — has also stalled because of funding. Instead, legislators decided last year to expand the pilot program.

“We do pilot after pilot. Study after study. That’s not nearly enough,” the New Haven Democrat said.

Malloy’s evolution from plaintiff to defendant

As mayor of Stamford, Malloy grew so frustrated seeing his wealthy neighbors get almost the same per-pupil education grants from the state as his city did that he joined a class-action lawsuit over the funding system.

During Malloy’s first weeks in office as governor, he vowed to change the “broken” way education was funded in Connecticut, and he has steadily increased the amount the state spends on education. In his first two-year budget, he filled the $271 million budget gap school districts faced when emergency federal stimulus dollars ran out.

And this year he is asking the legislature to increase education spending yet again, though municipalities will not be required to spend some of the $101.5 million increase on education.

Malloy does not claim that this increase will get the state to an adequate funding level, but says the additional funding “is moving us in that direction.”

holder winfield

Rep. Holder-Winfield:

For the state’s existing funding formula to work as intended, it needs at least an additional $724 million each year, according to top state officials. However, the state spends more for each student than almost every other state after factoring in the region’s higher cost of living, according to a national report card released this year by Education Week, a nonpartisan publication.

While touring a preschool program in Meriden that was able to offer more children enrollment because of the 2012 law, Malloy said the reforms were not meant as a way to get out of the state’s funding obligations or to delay the lawsuit.

“No. No. No. That’s not why we are doing this,” he said. “Education is my focus — has been, will be.”

If the suit is not dismissed, the trial is set to begin in July 2014.

Holder-Winfield, who is also running to become the mayor of New Haven, said a court order may be exactly what’s needed to force the state to find the money to provide a quality education.

“I don’t think that a good defense is ‘We are trying.’ Good intentions don’t help those young people that end up in prison or on social services” because they aren’t given an adequate education, he said. “There needs to be some strong force that spurs the legislature into action.”

Follow Jacqueline Rabe Thomas on Twitter @jacquelinerabe