School funding trial will look at preschool, too

A preschool classroom in West Hartford.

CTMirror.org file photo

A preschool classroom in West Hartford.

Should the state be responsible for preparing children for kindergarten so they show up ready to learn?

That question will be argued as part of a trial in state court in January. Among other things, the trial will explore the impact preschool education has on school readiness and whether the state is offering preschool to enough children.

Hartford Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher on Thursday provided a key victory to a coalition of parents, educators and city leaders suing the state when he rejected the state’s request to exclude evidence related to preschool from a trial that will determine whether the state is spending enough on education overall.

“What is the testimony about preschool evidence with respect to how it effects primary school and secondary school education? It’s hard for me to make a ruling on that until I hear evidence,” Moukawsher told lawyers representing the state and those representing the Coalition for Justice in Education Funding. “I will hear the evidence and maybe it will convince me that its so tightly connected to primary and secondary schools that it is appropriate.”

The state still has a long way to go before it reaches universal preschool for the state’s 3- and 4-year-olds. State officials reported earlier this year that 10,109 children from low-income families — nearly one-third of poor students — cannot afford to enroll in a high-quality preschool program. To provide universal access to preschool, districts would have to add 814 preschool classrooms.

But Attorney General George Jepsen, representing the state Department of Education and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, has argued that preschool has no place in the trial because early education is not a constitutional obligation of Connecticut.

Supertior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher

CTMirror.org

Supertior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher

The Connecticut Constitution states “there shall always be free public elementary and secondary schools in the state.”

“If preschool is not encompassed by the constitutional right, then evidence concerning preschool services is irrelevant, inadmissible and an improper use of judicial resources,” Jepsen wrote the court last Friday. “The demands of modern society and modern educational standards cannot rewrite the constitution of Connecticut to invent a new obligation to create and fund two additional pre-elementary grades.”

But in court Thursday Moukawsher pointed to a Connecticut Supreme Court landmark decision nearly six years ago that said the state is responsible for providing every child an “adequate” education. Moukawsher is responsible for determining whether that is happening.

“You have to do a bunch of things to make sure primary and secondary schools are adequate, and one of them may be preparing them before they get there,” he said. “The Supreme Court sent this [case] here for a reason… They want the matter to be looked at based on a pretty full record.”

And that, he ruled, includes allowing the state’s role in offering preschool to be examined in the trial.

Those who have tried to include preschool in school-funding lawsuits in 11 other states have had mixed results.

“In the past few years, however, the courts have begun declaring preschool a necessary element of a constitutionally guaranteed level of educational opportunity for low-income students,” researchers at Columbia University’s Teachers’ College report.

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