School funding on trial: 5 things to know

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A trial has begun in Hartford that is taking a deep dive into the conditions in the state’s lowest-performing schools.

Here are some things to know as the five-month proceeding unfolds.

What is this trial about?

Students are taught in closets and locker rooms in Windham Public Schools.

Teachers in Bridgeport don’t have enough pencils and copy paper.

Math textbooks in East Hartford middle schools are 24 yeas old.

And in New Britain, aides for kindergarten teachers with large classes have been eliminated.

This is just some of the testimony attorneys suing the state in the landmark school-funding lawsuit promise to offer over the coming months in an attempt to prove that the state is failing to provide enough funding to enable students to receive the education they deserve.

A makeshift classroom in a locker room off the gym at North Windham Elementary School

Plaintiff's court exhibit

A makeshift classroom in a locker room off the gym at North Windham Elementary School

“Knowing every day you are not able to equip your students with the things they need, it’s sad. It’s sad there are that many kids in New Britain who are not getting their needs met,” a teary-eyed Sharon Locke testified in Hartford Superior Court. Locke worked for years in top leadership positions in New Britain before becoming the superintendent of Naugatuck this school year.

She described years where the district couldn’t afford even basic instructional materials, such as calculators.

But the attorneys representing the state say this evidence is not enough to prove the state is failing to meet its constitutional obligation to provide a sufficient education for school-aged children.

“In this case, plaintiffs apparently plan to proceed with a trial by anecdote, which is an equally unreliable way to find the whole truth about our 542,000 students in over 1,000 schools,” Associate Attorney General Joseph Rubin said during his opening remarks in the trial.

While pointing out that state funding has increased in recent years – and per-student spending statewide is among the highest in the nation – Rubin also says additional money will not necessarily improve student outcomes.

“Test scores are not getting better as money goes up. They are not getting worse as money goes up. They are just staying the same,” he said. “It doesn’t change in any discernible way depending on how much you’re spending.”

Physics text books at Windham High School held together with duct tape

Plaintiff's court exhibit

Physics textbooks at Windham High School held together with duct tape.

A divided Connecticut Supreme Court nearly six years ago ruled that the state is responsible for ensuring that public schools are of a certain quality, but left it up to a lower court to determine what that standard is and whether it is being met.

What type of education is being provided in public schools throughout the state will be up to Judge Thomas Moukawsher to determine – a decision that all parties say will be appealed.

Who is suing the state?

A unlikely coalition is bringing this case against the state.

That group – the Coalition for Justice in Education Funding, or CCJEF – includes the leaders of the two statewide teachers’ unions, city mayors, superintendents, parents and students.

The army of attorneys representing the coalition are from Debavoise & Plimpton, a large law firm in New York City. It has significant name recognition from representing high-profile clients, such as prisoners being held without trial at Guantanamo Bay and the producers of Grand Theft Auto V when Lindsay Lohan claimed the company improperly cast her in its video game.

The case file for the school-funding case the week before the trial began. The case was first filed in 2005.

The court file for the school-funding case the week before the trial began. The case was first filed in 2005, and the trial began in January 2015.

Students at Yale Law School are also helping build the case against Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, his education commissioner and the State Board of Education.

The trial will focus on schools in six of the worst-performing districts in Connecticut – Bridgeport, Danbury, East Hartford, New Britain, New London and Windham.

Of the 65 people on the plaintiffs’ witness list, nearly one-third are teachers. Two parents – one from Windham and another from New Britain – will testify. Superintendents from East Hartford and New Britain testified during the first week of trial, and leaders from the other districts are slated to share their stories in the coming weeks.

The attorneys representing the state have regularly tried to get the coalition kicked off the case, saying only students and their parents, none of whom are voting members of the coalition, have the right to sue the state. The state also maintains that school boards, mayors and other municipal officials cannot sue the state because they are essentially representatives of the state and therefore cannot sue themselves. None of these groups enjoy the constitutional rights in question, the attorneys said.

“These groups, so often at odds with each other, share only one goal: more money,” said Rubin during his opening remarks.

The trial has been long awaited. The lawsuit was first filed 10 years ago and most of the 15 children included in the complaint are no longer school-aged.

How are schools funded in Connecticut?

Nearly $11 billion is spent each year to operate, renovate or build new elementary, middle and high schools and provide retirement benefits to teachers and other educators.

As overall spending on education regularly has increased over the last three decades, the state has picked up about 40 percent of the costs, federal funding about 5 percent and private funding less than 1 percent.

This means local municipalities fund just over half the tab through local property taxes.

The Connecticut Supreme Court ruled in 1977 in a landmark school-funding decision that it is unfair for public education to be primarily funded with municipal property taxes, because that meant less wealthy cities and towns had fewer education dollars.

“The present system of financing education in Connecticut ensures that, regardless of the educational needs or wants of children, more educational dollars will be allotted to children who live in property-rich towns than to children who live in property-poor towns,” the justices ruled in the Horton vs. Meskill case. “The present-day problem arises from the circumstance that over the years there has arisen a great disparity in the ability of local communities to finance local education, which has given rise to a consequent significant disparity in the quality of education available to the youth of the state.”

At the time of that decision, local funding covered 70 percent of education costs.

In response to the decision, lawmakers created a new funding formula that sought to make up the difference between low-income and affluent municipalities by directing state money to property-poor municipalities and to those who enroll students with the most needs.

East Hartford Superindent Nathan Quesnel

“I want the resources for East Hartford that I see literally one zip code over,” testified East Hartford Superintendent Nathan Quesnel.

The legislature’s nonpartisan budget office reports that the state’s 10 poorest municipalities last school year received just over $7,000 per student compared to about $500 per student in the wealthiest towns.

“Because of this massive infusion of state aid to the poorest districts, there is surprisingly little average variation in per-pupil spending across districts, and there can be no credible claim that any district has inadequate resources to provide adequate educational opportunities,” Rubin, an associate attorney general, said during the opening arguments.

But decades after the Horton vs. Meskill decision, disparities in overall spending still exist.

For example, last school year $13,705 was spent for each student in Bridgeport schools compared to $19,748 for each student in Westport, reports the state Department of Education. (See district-by-district spending here.)

The federal government earlier this year highlighted Connecticut as having one of the largest spending disparities between districts with large numbers of poor, minority students and their neighbors.

Schools throughout Connecticut still also rely heavily on local property taxes – more so than every state except New Hampshire, the U.S. Department of Education reports.

“Resources at home are extremely limited. This in turn has resulted in many challenges in our school district… The town doesn’t have any more financial room to move,” East Hartford Superintendent Nathan Quesnel testified Thursday. “I want the resources for East Hartford that I see literally one zip code over.”

Forty-two percent of East Hartford’s budget came from local property taxes last school year. That town is one of the poorest in the state, and student test scores are among the worst.

What works?

Educators during the first week of the trial testified that these are some of the approaches that improve students outcomes: longer school days, preschool for everyone, pull-out instruction for students struggling to read, smaller class sizes, and attendance coaches that follow-up with families when students are missing too much school.

But they all cost money.

At Lincoln Elementary School in New Britain, staff has to narrow down which needy students get the added help.

The computer lab at Natchaug School in Windham Public Schools

Plaintiff's court exhibit

The computer lab at Natchaug School in Windham

“We call it triage,” testified Principal Elaine Cabral on Wednesday, pointing out that the overwhelming majority of students at her school are reading well below grade level. “We have to make the difficult decision of picking and choosing who is going to get those interventions.”

The attorneys who represent the state counter that education is well financed.

“The growing consensus in education research [is] that increased funding alone does not improve student achievement and that education literature overwhelmingly supports reliance on accountability-based reforms as opposed to pure increases in spending,” Attorney General George Jepsen wrote the court before the trial started.

Over the last four years, the state has directed additional funding to struggling districts and to schools that promise to make some of the listed reforms and be subject to increased oversight. The state’s 30 lowest-performing districts are slated to receive $147.5 million more in state support this school year than they received during the 2011-12 school year, when the administration began allocating additional funds to those schools.

Judge Moukawsher has taken note of the state’s defense.

“The state argues, look what happened in 2010 when the Connecticut Supreme Court made a ruling on this subject and said that maybe there is a constitutional violation here. Let’s have a trial. There is a minimum standard in the Constitution. And the legislature scrambled around and put all this money in it, which the state says has solved the problem,” he said Friday during the trial.

The state maintains the approach is working. Two high schools – one in Bloomfield and another in New London – last year lifted themselves from “turnaround” status, the worst classification, after state interventions.

Bloomfield and New London both received additional funding from the state in recent years through the Alliance District grant.

“It’s not that we don’t know what works. We do know what works. We do this in small, isolated spots in our state, small isolated spots in our districts. But we never bring it to scale,” said Quesnel.

The state also plans to point to research that shows there is no relationship between per-pupil spending and student achievement.

“Variation in school resource measures at the school or district level cannot explain the vast majority of achievement differences between students,” Michael Podgursky, an economics professor at the Univeristy of Missouri, wrote in his review of Connecticut. “Knowing whether a poor student is enrolled in a top or bottom spending quintile district provides no useful information about how that student will perform.”

Podgursky is expected to testify for the state.

What impact will the ruling have?
Hartford Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher listens to an attorney for the plaintiffs question Sharon Locke, at right, about her experiences as a district administrator in New Britain Public Schools. Locke now serves as the superintendent in Naugatuck.

CtMirror.org

Hartford Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher listens to an attorney for the plaintiffs question Sharon Locke, at right, about her experiences as a district administrator in New Britain Public Schools. Locke now serves as the superintendent in Naugatuck.

If Judge Moukawsher determines that the state is not providing students with the education the constitution requires, it will then be up to him to fashion a remedy.

If that’s necessary, the state says it would want him to order the legislature to make this its top priority and fix the problem, as was done in the Horton and school desegregation cases.

But the coalition suing the state says the judge should appoint a special master to implement a remedy that directs more money to needy schools.

The judge has said he is divided on how a remedy should be fashioned if he rules the state is not meeting its obligations.

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