The Connecticut Supreme Court Thursday grappled with the question of the state’s responsibility for overcoming the ill effects of poverty as a coalition of parents, educators and local officials argued the state should be required to spend more in its lowest-performing school districts.
The state Constitution requires that students be offered a free public education.
Justice Richard N. Palmer acknowledged there are “exceedingly disturbing statistics” showing that many students aren’t learning what they should. But, he said, “There are all sorts of problems that affect these students before they get to school.
“What, if anything, is the state obligated to do to address those preexisting conditions?” he asked.
Representing the state, Associate Attorney General Joseph Rubin, said Connecticut is responsible for providing a “minimally adequate education,” not a guarantee that students actually will learn what they should.
“We don’t know what kind of slope we are going down until we say that our system is not going to be constitutional until we get the test results we need,” Rubin said. “This court has never said we can or should expect the schools to overcome every obstacle of poverty.”
But, Palmer asked, “How long does the legislature have to make these results better” before the courts should step in? “I don’t think anyone is saying that the schools have to solve all of societal ills.”
The attorney representing the coalition suing the state, Joseph Moodhe, said it was not asking the court to hold schools responsible for overcoming the effects of poverty but rather to determine whether the state is providing its neediest students with an opportunity to succeed in school.
“Schools are there to educate children no matter how they show up,” said Moodhe, representing the Coalition for Justice in Education Funding.
He argued the state is not adequately doing that, citing testimony at trial in the suit that schools in many impoverished districts had larger classes and less experienced teachers than their better-off neighbors.
“There are additional resources that are needed,” he said.
Some of the justices seemed wary about treading into education funding decisions that typically are left to the legislature.
“It reflects my problem of the courts weighing into where the funding should go,” said Palmer. “Who am I to say that? How can we get into those determinations?”
Rubin said the court should resist doing so.
The constitution, he said, gives this authority to the legislature as long as its approach is reasonable, and not the courts. The courts, he argued, are no better suited to resolve these problems.
“The legislature is doing everything they can,” he said.
Justice Richard A. Robinson took issue with Rubin.
“The problem that I am having with the argument is that if something is unconstitutional, you are saying the court still has to lay back because something is difficult. That is not the role of the court. The role of the court is to determine whether something is unconstitutional or not – not how the legislature will fix it, but you will fix it.”
Moodhe said courts must step in when the legislature falls far short, reminding the justices that in places like Bridgeport 90 percent of students are not proficient in math and one-third are not proficient in English.
“Our position is: Legislature, do your job. The court has identified the problem,” he said.