Troubled schools on trial: Will a scathing court decision lead to action?

Troubled schools on trial: Last of seven stories

Will a scathing court decision lead to action?

by Jacqueline Rabe Thomas

Malloy addressing General Assembly after releasing budget proposal.
Either the pie has to be made substantially bigger or the monies have to be distributed differently… So I think people have to wrap their heads around that.
— Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy

Students, parents, and religious leaders held rallies and press conferences across the state calling for action at the state Capitol in the weeks after a Superior Court judge castigated the way the state funds and oversees failing schools.

A school bus outside the state Capitol

“Thank God for the judge’s ruling,” Athena Wagner, a Waterbury parent, told a small crowd outside the state Capitol. “They are going to have to make some hard-core, unpleasant, unpopular decisions to right this enormous and egregious wrong.”

“Stand up for the children,” the crowd chanted.

Separately, 132 religious leaders also called on the General Assembly and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy to act, and a poll released by an advocacy group found 45 percent disapprove of the job the state legislature is doing to improve public schools.

So will Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher’s conclusions that “the state of education in some towns is alarming” and that “egregious gaps exist between rich and poor districts” spur reform at the state Capitol?

Maybe.

After hearing of five months of testimony about the disparities in funding and resources between low-income school districts and those in better-off communities, Judge Thomas Moukawsher concluded that the way the state distributes education aid is irrational and thus unconstitutional. He also ordered legislators to overhaul policies on teacher pay and evaluation, high school graduation requirements and special education eligibility.

Both funding and educational practices have to be “rationally, substantially, and verifiably calculated to achieve educational opportunities,” the judge said.

While changing the way the state distributes school aid among towns may draw substantial support among legislators and the governor, they have shown little interest in, or have outright rejected, changing the other policies the judge found unconstitutional.

Those they say, are in their purview, not the court’s.

With no momentum at the state Capitol, it will probably take an order from the Connecticut Supreme Court for these policy changes to become a reality. The high court could hear arguments on appeals to Moukawsher’s ruling as early as next spring.

Connecticut Supreme Court chamber

“These are challenging issues and it is appropriate that they are dealt with by the legislative branch of government and not by a single trial court judge,” state Rep. Andy Fleischmann, D-West Hartford, the longtime House chairman of the legislature’s Eduction Committee, said during an interview. “It will be up to the Supreme Court to decide if there is a basis for his ruling.”

Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen – who has characterized the 11-year-old lawsuit Moukawsher presided over as the “largest and longest case in Connecticut history” – recommends legislators hold off before making large policy changes.

“Because we don’t know what the outcome is going to be of the Supreme Court’s decision, let’s wait until we know that this is the kind of change that is really going to take place in Connecticut,” Jepsen, a Democrat, said during a lengthy interview on the television news show “Meet the Leaders.”

“These are challenging issues and it is appropriate that they are dealt with by the legislative branch of government and not by a single trial court judge”

— Andy Fleischmann
state representative, D-West Hartford

He appealed Moukawsher’s ruling, he said, to avoid having one judge become the state’s “education czar.”

Republican legislators agree.

“Judge Moukawsher’s decision can only be characterized as overreaching by an activist judge. His decision reads more like a legislative agenda or white paper on education policy than a judicial finding,” Senate Republican Leader Len Fasano, of North Haven, said on the  day the judge released his opinion. “For a judge to opine on the possible solutions and order the legislature to undertake sweeping education reform that comports with his own policy analysis is breathtaking in its hubris.”

Meanwhile, legislators and the governor are focusing their attention on how they fund schools.

“Frankly, the opinion of the judge, I agree with about 85 percent of it. There are parts I don’t like,” Rep. Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, the incoming majority leader of the State House of Representatives, said during a press conference outside the state Capitol. “At the end of the day, I don’t want to focus on every word on that paper, and I don’t want seven unelected people to decide our education funding. We can decide right here.”

However, facing a deficit of $1.45 billion dollars for the upcoming fiscal year, legislators will be hard-pressed to find additional money to help close funding disparities between rich and poor districts. The other choice is to redistribute existing funding to the towns that need it the most, a shift that would face huge opposition from those legislators who would see funding cut to their districts.

State Rep. Matt Ritter talks during a rally outside the state Capitol following the judge’s decision

“Either the pie has to be made substantially bigger or the monies have to be distributed differently,” Malloy said during a wide-ranging interview on the judge’s ruling. “So I think people have to wrap their heads around that.”

In prior years, the governor and the Democratic-controlled General Assembly have decided the best approach was to increase state aid and send 95 percent of the additional money to the 30 lowest-performing districts.  That provided them with almost $148 million more in the 2015-16 school year than they received in 2011-12.

However, a fight over education aid for this school year illustrates the political hurdles any attempt to redistribute education aid from richer to poorer districts will face.

Facing the need to close a $900 million deficit for the current fiscal year, Malloy pushed to largely shield the poorest districts from cuts by eliminating education aid for the most affluent communities.

After an outcry from mostly Republican legislators that eliminating education aid to their districts was too harsh, Democrats passed a budget that significantly scaled back funding for those communities but also cut most heavily from the poorest districts.

“To take it just from the wealthiest places, it’s sort of arbitrary,” Rep. Gail Lavielle, the minority leader of the Education Committee, said at the time. She represents Wilton, which would have lost its entire $1.5 million grant under the governor’s budget. “One could look at this as political.”

Instead, Wilton lost just over half of it’s state education grants, about $796,000. By comparison, Bridgeport, the state’s largest school district, lost only 1.3 percent of its education aid, but that amounted to $2.5 million.

Emboldened by the judge’s September ruling – and agreeing with Moukawsher’s conclusion that “too little money is chasing too many needs” – Malloy said it’s time for the state to step up and make some difficult choices.

“I think the early reaction to the judge’s decision is that my administration takes it very seriously, and no one else does,” said Malloy, who as mayor of Stamford before becoming governor in 2011 was part of the coalition suing the state, the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding. “To wait to do something just means that you are committing to the same path which I think everyone knows is the wrong path, to some extent.”

“I think the early reaction to the judge’s decision is that my administration takes it very seriously, and no one else does”

— Dannel P. Malloy
Democratic goveronr of Connecticut

Asked how the state should resolve this problem as it faces a massive deficit, Malloy indicated his solution would not be additional funding.

“I think it is a problem largely of distribution and accountability,” he said, adding he thinks the judge’s conclusion that state funding is unconstitutional will be upheld by the high court. “I think that there’s a reluctance to do big things, and I would like to see us do more big things in education with respect to assuring that districts have the money that they need.”

“I’ve sent pretty tough legislation to the legislature. It’s been watered down every time I try to do anything. But I generally get some of it. Some of what we’ve gotten has made a difference cumulatively,” he said.

Currently, two-thirds of the state’s primary education grant goes to the poorest districts. A similar breakdown exists for school construction aid.

So will Democratic leadership be able to find enough votes to overhaul where state aid is directed?

That remains to be seen.

However, both Fleischmann, the leader of the education committee, and Sen. Beth Bye, the outgoing chairwoman of the legislature’s powerful Appropriation Committee, say the primary problem is that the state isn’t spending enough on education to begin with.

“If the formula currently on the books were funded properly, it would address the demands and the needs of Connecticut’s districts,” said Fleischmann. “Things would look very different if we were able to marshal the resources to fully fund the formula.”

The public spotlight

Meanwhile, some are growing anxious as they see thousands of poor, minority students struggle each year – and no impetus for change.

“I am so fired up, and not in a good way. All my colleagues are speaking so very politely, and I just have to say, it makes me really angry – it’s clear we serve our white students better than our minority students,” Malia Sieve, a member of the State Board of Education board from Norwich said after hearing a presentation on the most recent test results in science. “I’m tired of all of us talking like that’s not the case, if we talk really politely it will all be fine. But it’s not. It just isn’t. We live in this land of steady habits…. We have not decided that we have to do anything differently.”

Allan Taylor of Hartford, the chairman of the state education board, said the state education department needs to stop releasing only flattering press releases on test results when the reality is too many students are behind.

“When we pull our punches publicly, then we don’t build the public support and the public sense of urgency… It doesn’t contribute toward achieving the mobilization that our kids deserve.”

— Allan Taylor
chairman of the State Board of Education

“I understand why we do it, but when we pull our punches publicly, then we don’t build the public support and the public sense of urgency,” he said during the board’s December meeting. “It doesn’t contribute toward achieving the mobilization that our kids deserve.”

The next day, the department issued another press release. The headline: “State Department of Education announces significant student growth in reading and math.”

The release reported on test results showing 43 percent of students statewide reached targets for growth in English and math. Not mentioned was that one-quarter of the students tested were significantly behind in English or math, and that the numbers were much more dire for those from impoverished families.

The last time the public spotlight was focused intensely on education was in 2012, when Gov. Malloy regularly called the problem “the civil rights issue of our time” as he pushed to tie teacher evaluations and pay in part to student test scores and change the way the state intervenes in failing schools.

“We’ve been too timid when the situation calls for boldness,” he said during his State of the State speech before the General Assembly.

But after riling teachers with his education proposals that foreshadowed much of what the trial judge found wrong in troubled schools, the House and Senate almost unanimously passed legislation that everyone could agree on and backed off the controversial elements Malloy was seeking.

Gov. Malloy signs education reform legislation in 2012

Since then, the governor and the General Assembly have decided to let what they characterized at the bill signing as “landmark reforms” play out and have not revisited the controversial changes.

Malloy does not plan to use the judge’s ruling as validation and try once again to force changes in how the state intervenes in failing schools.

“I’m not sure that those are the portions of the judge’s decision that would be upheld by the court, and I think I am going to try and put most of my effort in the areas that I think one way or another are going to have to play out in Connecticut,” Malloy said.

Change ahead?

State Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, shares the judge’s frustration with the state’s reticence to force change in struggling districts.

“It’s our responsibility to take back our power,” Winfield said, pointing out that special interest groups have too often prevailed at the state Capitol. “Maybe it’s a fool’s errand, but our connection to any of those indivuals cannot be the reason that we make deicsions. It’s about the kids.”

Judge Moukawsher ruled that education is a state responsibility that can not be delegated.

What happens when districts don’t improve?

Moukawsher gave the state failing grades for not responding.

“To keep its promise of adequate schools for all children, the state must rally more forcefully around troubled schools,” he ruled. “The failure is just too big and the response to it is just too small… The state knows it can’t keep up the pretense that local schools are local problems, but it seems numb to the logical implications.”

But others disagree that the state should take a stronger hand in ordering changes at the local level.

Attorney General Jepsen, on the day he appealed Mokawsher’s ruling, said, “State education policy is determined by the legislative and executive branches and implemented under a strong tradition of local control by municipal school boards and, ultimately, teachers.”

Malloy also isn’t keen to intervene more readily.

“In some ways our laws are much more protective of local administration even when that administration is failing than in vesting powers in the state to correct those problems…. Our laws are generally written to protect the sovereignty of the individual districts,” he said.

Education Commissioner Dianna Wentzell with Gov. Dannel P. Malloy in a kindergarten classroom at an elementary school in Bristol.

Asked whether that needs to change, Malloy responded, “My administration has gone down the, you know, ‘let’s have a carrot and let’s incentivize changes,’ and I think in that regard we have done pretty well… Let’s show that there are changes that districts can make on their own with our help, but on their own, that can lead to greater and more significant progress.”

But educators testified at length that not enough money – or carrots – have gone to low-income districts to provide the kind of support necessary for their high-need students.

The state passed earlier this year on pleas from the Bridgeport school superintendent, school board chair and local college leaders to provide training for  rancorous school board members who they said were obstructing board progress.

Malloy said he was not convinced there was enough local support for such state intervention.

“I think there needs to be local buy-in before that involvement can be successful, and there needs to be political leadership on the ground within the community to bring that about. You know you have a mayor, you have a sitting council, you have a board of education. My experience as a local leader tells me that when you can get those groups pulling in the same direction then you can get some pretty good results,” Malloy said. “I think that Bridgeport has presented an example of a situation where there may beed to be more state involvement, but we don’t have the statutes for it.”

Malloy did not indicate that he intends to push for more state involvement in struggling districts.

“I think that situations have in the past, and will in the future present themselves where the state could pay a more activist role. I don’t think that’s contained in our statutes, and therefore we are in some senses, we are left to wait until people seek our help.”

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