Judge rejects state’s request to delay school funding trial

Judge Kevin Dubay on the court-ordered deadlines leading up to trial, "it looks in some respects it was ignored."

Jacqueline Rabe Thomas/ CT Mirror staff

Judge Kevin Dubay on the court-ordered deadlines leading up to trial, “it looks in some respects it was ignored.”

Hartford Superior Court Judge Kevin Dubay summarily rejected the state’s request Thursday for a lengthy postponement of an education-funding lawsuit over whether the state is meeting its constitutional responsibility of providing a “suitable education” for every child in Connecticut.

The attorney general’s office had asked the judge to reschedule a trial now set for July 1 until October 2015, a move that the plaintiffs, the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding, claimed was intended to delay the proceedings until after the 2014 gubernatorial election.

“Fortunately, it didn’t work, and nine years from the time CCJEF filed this case, schoolchildren will finally have their day in court,” said Dianne Kaplan deVries, the founder and executive director of the coalition. The attorney general’s office had no comment.

The trial could reflect on the efforts of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, a first-term Democrat up for re-election this fall, and his Republican predecessor, M. Jodi Rell, to address the issues raised in a lawsuit filed in 2005 by parents, students and officials in 16 towns.

In 2010, which was Rell’s last year as governor, the state Supreme Court ruled that the fundamental right to public education under Connecticut Constitution guarantees students the right to a minimum qualitative standard and “suitable” educational opportunities.

The Supreme Court returned the case to the trial court to determine whether the state has met that standard and, if not, what remedies should be ordered.

While rejecting the request for a 15-month delay, the judge reserved the right to order a more modest postponement until September 1, to accommodate summer vacations.

Dubay said he was not happy with how the case has proceeded to trial and the lack of adherence to the deadlines leading up to the July start date.

“The court order it looks in some respects it was ignored,” he said. “Both motions to modify the schedule order are denied.”

The state argued that the date needed to be pushed back because the allegations in the lawsuit are outdated and need to be updated to reflect the state’s current education landscape.

“It’s the state’s view that a trial date as early as September is unfair and unreasonable to the state,” Associate Attorney General Joseph Rubin told the judge minutes before the ruling.

Among the scholastic problems listed in the lawsuit are large class sizes, high dropout rates, students who are not ready academically being promoted to the next grade, low performance on standardized tests and not enough money available to the districts to resolve these problems.

While the state has increased funding for education over the last three fiscal years by 2 percent, or $101 million, education advocates say it has not been enough.

“The last two [school funding] tasks forces created formulas that were woefully underfunded — by about $700 million. The latest formula promised a phase-in of full funding that could last decades for most of the state’s districts,” Kathy Guay, a former state budget official now with the business-backed Center for Education Reform, wrote to the advocacy group’s followers on Wednesday.

By Guay’s calculations, it would take districts years to be fully funded. For example, the state funding formula has West Hartford currently eligible for $55 million a year from the state based on student need and a town’s ability to pay for education through local revenue. However, West Hartford will get just $17 million this fiscal year. West Hartford will get the same amount the next year, less than 2 percent the difference what they are eligible for.

“Phase-in is a gloriously optimistic term,” Guay said. “The phase-in is not working… Wealthy communities are still spending more on a per pupil basis than low-income communities on a per-pupil basis.”

Here’s a town-by-town interactive map of how much the Center for Education Reform reports towns are due if the state’s main education grant were fully funded this year.