Malloy’s school reforms may be headed for trial

Timing is everything when it comes to resolving the years-old lawsuit filed by parents, educators and mayors across the state who are demanding that the state spend significantly more money to ensure Connecticut children are getting an adequate education.

The state’s top attorneys Monday asked a Superior Court judge to dismiss the case and give the education reforms passed by the legislature last year “at least three years” to be implemented.

“What we have before the court is not a tweak” to the education system, said Assistant Attorney General Eleanor Mullen, referring to the reforms.

“And how do I know that?” asked Judge Kevin Dubay.  

That could be determined simply by reading the new law, Mullen said.

But the plaintiffs' attorneys say these changes -– now being implemented nine years after their lawsuit was filed -- are “trivial,” and that the plaintiffs are tired of waiting for their day in court.

“It will allow the state to evade constitutional scrutiny in every situation just by passing new legislation,” said Megan Bannigan.

The Connecticut Supreme Court in 2010 ruled that every child is entitled to an “adequate” education, and sent the case back to the lower court to determine if the state is providing that.

“It’s hard for me to imagine how there are not going to be questions of fact in this case,” the judge said. “That sounds like a trial to me.”

With a trial date currently set for July -– four months before the gubernatorial election –- the timing couldn’t be worse for Gov. Dannel P. Malloy for a court to be contemplating if the state under his leadership has done enough to provide an adequate education for every student.

The judge has 120 days to rule on whether the case should be dismissed.

A governor’s reforms on trial?

The state is arguing that the reforms spearheaded by the Democratic governor, and the additional funding allocated for the changes, proves that the state will be providing an adequate education.

The reforms include the state's creation of a “Commissioner's Network” of schools, where the state provides additional money so schools can implement reforms such as lengthening the school day or reducing class size. So far 12 schools are part of the network. The legislature allocated $5.3 million for the network for the 2013-14 school year.

The state also increased funding by $46.4 million this fiscal year to increase enrollment in charter and magnet schools and to offer city students a chance to enroll in suburban schools. Most of these steps were required by a separate court order.

An additional $100.7 million has also been provided to give school districts a chance to improve. That funding –- almost entirely directed at the state’s 30 lowest-performing districts -– was awarded only after districts promised to make certain changes.

Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor has said that the funding could not cover budget gaps, and that the “substantial majority” of the money had to pay for new or expanded programs, such as new teacher evaluations and implementing national Common Core teaching standards in the state.

Asked last spring if the additional funding would pull the state up to an adequate funding level, Malloy said it "is moving us in that direction."

But Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch, whose school system is among the lowest-achieving in the state, said relying on these reforms to save his district is nonsense.

“What a bunch of gobbly goop,” he said after Monday's hour-long hearing in Superior Court in Hartford on the state’s arguments for dismissing the case. “This is an embarrassment like the state of Connecticut hasn’t had since slavery.”

His proof: 23 of the 32 schools in his district “are failing,” Finch said, and only 4 percent of Bridgeport students are literate by Grade 3.

“What does the state of Connecticut have to say about that? Delay and deny and obfuscate. This is ridiculous,” said Finch, who is also president of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, the organization that represents municipalities' mayors and first selectmen.

State officials reported last year that the state needs to spend at least an additional $724 million each year for the state's funding formula to work as intended,.

However, the state does spend more per student than almost any 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. With $3.9 billion budgeted by the state to be spent on education this fiscal year (excluding higher education), nearly one-quarter of state spending will pay for education-related programs and expenses, according to the legislature's non-partisan budget office.

Regardless, the attorney general's office says, this isn't a decision for the courts.

"The bottom line is that plaintiffs' extreme and radical requested relief would amount to taking the state's funding decisions for public schools away from the citizens' elected representatives," Attorney General George Jepsen wrote earlier this year when requesting that the case be dismissed.

Who should be able to sue?

Eighteen parents are members of the lawsuit against the state. But so are several mayors and locally elected school board members, who, the attorney general’s office says, are not the afflicted party and so should not be part of the lawsuit.

“This lawsuit is simply an attempt by [the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities] to eliminate municipalities' statutory duties to fund education,” Mullen said.

“It’s a back door” for municipal leaders -- who cannot sue the state -- to sue the state, said Assistant Attorney General Darren Cunningham.

Since the inception of the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding suit in the fall of 2005, the case has garnered a lot of attention and support as mayors from Bridgeport, East Harford, Hartford, New Haven and Windham joined forces with the leaders of the state's two teachers' unions to sue the state. Malloy, mayor of Stamford at the time, also joined the suit.

On Monday, the mayor from Bridgeport was in the courtroom with school board members from Hartford and Stamford, and the lobbyist for the Connecticut Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union.

Documents submitted earlier this year refer to some of the specific challenges school districts face, including:

  • The average class size at Roosevelt School in Bridgeport has far exceeded state averages;
  • At East Hartford High School, students who fell behind in math had to catch up on their own because there were no tutors or remedial instructors.
  • Only half the fourth graders in New Britain were reading proficiently, but 99 percent were being socially promoted to fifth grade.
  • At Bassick High School in Bridgeport, almost half the students who enter as freshman will not graduate.

"Once in the school [these factors] increase the chance that these students will become part of the educational underclass," the lawsuit alleges.

And while there's widespread agreement that too many children in Connecticut are not receiving a quality education, the attorney general's office argues that it would be unfair to litigate constitutional violations for a system that no longer exists.

Education Reform legislation approved in 2012 (Return to where you were reading in the article here.)

State Supreme Court decision on school-funding lawsuit (Return to where you were reading in the article here)

Amended complaint filed by CCJEF in 2013 (Return to where you were reading in the article here.)

Motion to dismiss lawsuit by the Attorney General (Return to where you were reading in the article here.)

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