CT school funding on trial: 5 key questions facing the judge

5-things-school-funding-on-trialThe five-month trial that will determine whether the state is providing students in high-poverty districts with a suitable education is coming to a close this week.

On Monday, lawyers representing the coalition of students, parents, school boards, teachers’ unions and mayors that are suing the state summed up their case in closing arguments.

Here are five questions that face the court.

Dismiss the case?

The parents of 11 students are suing the state, all of them alleging in their complaint that the education being provided to their children is inadequate.

A parent of just two of those students, Mary Gallucci, testified during the trial. Her testimony took three minutes and was limited to where she lives, where her children go to school and how she became a member of the coalition suing the state.

No details about her childen’s experience in the Windham Public Schools were offered, and attorneys representing the state didn’t ask her a single question.

Instead, the judge heard from teachers, principals and superintendents for days describing dire circumstances in their schools.

Mary Phillips-Gallucci listens to closing arguments Monday.

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Mary Gallucci, center, listens to closing arguments

Bankrolling the lawsuit is the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding (CCJEF) – whose voting members include the state’s teachers’ unions and several school boards and city mayors. The lawyers defending the state are pushing for the case to be dismissed on grounds that only parents with students in school have the right to sue the state, parents don’t have voting rights within CCJEF and the parent who testified did not show the education her children are receiving is inadequate.

This question over whether the case, which was filed nearly 11 years ago, should move forward is not a new one. The state’s attorney general has been asking the court for years to strip CCJEF of its standing to sue.

But the attorney representing the plaintiffs rejected those calls Monday.

“I think that it is absolutely undisputed that we have at least one set of plaintiffs that have standing in this case…That ends the discussion,” Joseph Moodhe, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs, told the judge. He called the debate over standing a “red herring” aimed at avoiding a decision on the quality of the education being offered to students.

Judge Thomas Moukawsher on Monday, describing the decision he must make on whether CCJEF has standing to sue the state, said, “I have to make some form of fact judgment that this isn’t a sham.”

What’s an adequate education?

A divided Connecticut Supreme Court six and a half 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.

“Where do you set the standard? I think that is what has to be considered,” Moukawsher said Monday.

Click to read The Mirror's coverage

Click to read The Mirror’s coverage

The plaintiffs argued Monday an adequate education is one that prepares students with the opportunity to attend college when they graduate high school.

“Our case is about not having those opportunities because the resources are not there for those children,” said Moodhe. “Ultimately, it comes down to whether the district is getting the appropriate resources to provide for what’s needed to educate their children.”

Throughout the trial, the coalition chose six school districts to highlight problems – Bridgeport, Danbury, East Hartford, New Britain, New London and Windham. All enroll high concentrations of students from low-income families.

“The larger issue is what happens in districts that have large proportions of impoverished adults and students and how that particular dynamic impacts the ability of districts to provide an education to the students they are there to serve,” said Moodhe. “I think the evidence is quite clear that all of these townships are financially distressed; that most of the evidence has indicated that the superintendents have fought to get additional funding and pretty much without exception they have been disappointed… Because these towns are populated by poorer populations, they really don’t have the income in order to finance” their schools.

During his closing arguments, Moodhe asserted that high-poverty districts are not meeting even a minimum threshold for education quality because they cannot hire and retain talented staff.

“Poverty district students are more likely to be taught by less experienced new teachers,” said Moodhe. “Our districts are disadvantaged by districts’ inability to field the best teachers.”

Difficult working conditions, teachers and principals testified throughout the trial, include larger class sizes and high concentrations of high-need students. Educators say they lose waves of their best teachers each year, have trouble hiring replacements, and have too few teachers and other support staff to keep their students from falling further behind.

“They have less compensation and less enviable working conditions,” said Moodhe. “The evidence is quite clear that the teacher situation is a problem.”

But attorneys representing the state have countered that the schools in these districts are overwhelmingly filled with excellent teachers — as evidenced by annual evaluation ratings — and that the state has spent millions in recent years so that students have the staff support they need.

An equal education for all?

There’s no question that the state’s wealthiest communities are spending much more educating their students.

But should the state be responsible for equalizing that disparity?

Neither side is arguing that should happen.

Rather, those suing the state want a funding system that recognizes the extra cost to catch high-need students up with their peers.

While the states primary school funding grant provides 30 percent more money for children from low-income families, experts who testified for the plaintiffs during the trial testified that it costs two to three times as much to educate poor children who often show up for school with major deficiencies.

The state directs the vast majority of its education funding to the poorest and lowest-achieving communities, but the plaintiffs argue it clearly hasn’t been enough to make up for the significant needs these districts face.

Their proof: test results that show about half the students from these districts are multiple grade levels behind in reading and math.

“What you really have to do is give somebody the opportunity to get that adequate education. They may not get there. But you have to give them the tools and the resources,” he said.

When should the court step in?

The State Constitution requires that, “There shall always be free public elementary and secondary schools in the state. The General Assembly shall implement this principle by appropriate legislation.”

Missing is language clarifying what level of education is required.

Three of the seven justices on the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled in 2010 that the constitution entitles every school-aged child to a “an education suitable to give them the opportunity to be responsible citizens able to participate fully in democratic institutions, such as jury service and voting, and to prepare them to progress to institutions of higher education, or to attain productive employment and otherwise to contribute to the state’s economy.”

A fourth justice wrote a concurring opinion, agreeing that the constitution guarantees a certain level of educational quality but setting a much lower threshold for what that standard would be.

Joseph Moodhe, the plaintiff's attorney

Joseph Moodhe, the plaintiff’s attorney

“The right established under [the constitution] requires only that the legislature establish and maintain a minimally adequate system of free public schools,” Justice Richard N. Palmer wrote. “Consequently, in my view, the plaintiffs will not be able to prevail on their claims unless they are able to establish that what the state has done to discharge its obligations under [the constitution] is so lacking as to be unreasonable by any fair or objective standard.”

In the absence of a clear majority mandate from the high court on what quality threshold the state must meet, Judge Moukawsher on multiple occasions has said he worries about overstepping the court’s proper role.

“I think you should understand by now that I have concerns about the fitness of the court to set a level of education spending beyond a bare minimum,” he told the attorneys Monday.

That concern stems from court decisions seemingly piling up that force the state legislature to spend money on particular priorities. On Monday, the judge specifically pointed out the courts’ involvement in ordering the state to desegregate Hartford schools and to take better care of abused and neglected children in the custody of the state’s child welfare agency.

“If I order so many billions to go to education as a whole, are there going to be billions left to desegregate Hartford Public Schools? So too with respect to the Department of Children and Families,” Moukowsher said. “The court is telling [the legislature] ‘spend this, spend that.’ How do courts do that in a vacuum? How can a court say, ‘Here’s what you’re going to spend’ without even considering that there are other constitutional rights that you impinge on when doing that. And there are a lot more, the mentally ill, prisoners, all of them have constitutional rights. When you order spending over here, you have to recognize that you’re affecting the spending over there.

“It means we have a big problem in courts doing this sort of stuff,” said Moukawsher, a former state legislator who represented Groton. “As much as you might say that courts have done it, I am not willing to do it unless I can believe there’s a way to do it rationally and fairly and a way that does not undermine the whole constitutional structure of the state by having the judiciary interfering so much with the job of the legislature that it cripples the legislature’s ability to do policy decisions.”

But, he acknowledged, there has to be some minimal standard that the court holds the legislature and governor to, otherwise, “You would have an empty constitution.”

Attorneys for the state have been arguing for judicial restraint in this case, but those suing the state maintain that a constitutional right should not be blunted by other obligations the state also must meet.

“The right to an adequate education is an affirmative constitutional obligation,” said Moodhe. “There is a challenge to the legislature for inaction… The legislature should not be given wide deference to meet that affirmative obligation.”

What’s the remedy?

If the judge determines that the state is not providing students with the education the constitution requires, it could 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 previous education funding and segregation lawsuits.

But the coalition suing the state says the courts should oversee a remedy that directs more money to needy schools.

No matter what Moukawsher decides, both sides have said they will appeal to the state Supreme Court for a final determination.

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