A Superior Court judge Thursday rejected the state's request to throw out a lawsuit charging that Connecticut has failed to provide enough money to its poorest school districts.
The decision comes eight years after a group of mayors and teachers' unions across the state filed the lawsuit alleging chronic underfunding of education and nearly three years after the state's Supreme Court sent the case to a lower court to decide if an "adequate" education is being provided to students.
The trial is set to begin July 1.
When asking that the case be dismissed, the state's top attorneys argued earlier this year that such a trial would be premature. The state's education commissioner told the court that the education reforms that became law in 2012 needed a few years to roll out before the changes they made would be realized.
But the attorneys for the plaintiffs called the reforms championed by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy "trivial." Those reforms to date include the state intervening in 11 low-performing schools, launching new teacher evaluations based on student performance and the state providing more money to struggling districts.
Judge Kevin Dubay wrote in his 34-page decision released Thursday, "The extent to which these reforms impact the adequacy of the state's education system in the context of constitutional standards, however, remains unascertainable at this stage."
The Hartford-based judge said it would be "impossible" to evaluate whether the current funding system is providing a suitable education without a trial.
"The plaintiffs should be given an opportunity to prove the allegations set forth in the complaint, specifically that the education system remains unconstitutional in spite of the 2012 reforms," he writes.
The lawsuit has attracted a lot of attention and support since its inception in 2005, as mayors from Bridgeport, East Hartford, Hartford, New Haven, Windham and Stamford 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.
Since then, 18 parents of children attending school in Bridgeport, Danbury, East Hartford, Hartford, New Britain, New Haven, New London, Plainfield and Windham have also joined the suit.
Dianne deVries, the project director of the coalition, called Thursday's decision a "big win."
"The opinion sets the stage for students of Connecticut to finally get their day in court," she said.
Among the problems listed in the lawsuit are large class sizes, high dropout rates, students being promoted to the next grade who are not ready academically, low performance on standardized tests and not enough money available to the districts to resolve these problems.
"Once in the school [these factors] increase the chance that these students will become part of the educational underclass," the lawsuit alleges.
The timing of the trial -– four months before the gubernatorial election –- couldn’t be worse for Malloy, as it will direct a strong light on whether the state under his leadership has done enough to provide an adequate education for every student.
The plaintiffs claim that despite the governor's increasing education grant to towns by $101 million during his three-year tenure, schools across the state are still financially unable to provide an adequate education to Connecticut's children. They estimate $2 billion more is needed on top of the $3.8 billion the state will spend on education this year, which is 20 percent of the state budget.
The approved state budget for next fiscal year does provide towns with $41 million more to help cover education. During Malloy's time in office the Education Cost Sharing grant has increased by 2 percent a year. 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.
The Democratic governor is making no promises that he will push legislators to increase funding further.
"I think that it's a little early to tell," Malloy said earlier this week. Malloy's budget office is struggling to keep the state budget out of deficit. "This has been the slowest [economic] recovery from a recession in the post-World War II era," he said.
Jacklyn Falkowski, a spokeswoman for the Connecticut Attorney General representing the state, said in a statement that her office is reviewing the decision "and will determine the state’s course of action after appropriate review.”
Decision on state's motion to dismiss.
State spending on education.
Complaint against the state's funding system for education.