Court reverses school financing decision

Never mind. A court decision that appeared to upend Connecticut’s approach to financing public education has been largely reversed by a state Supreme Court decision, putting questions of equity in education firmly back in the hands of state politicians — legislators, the governor — as well as local town and city officials and voters who approve local school budgets.

The split 4-to-3 decision by the Connecticut Supreme Court on Wednesday, Jan. 17, overturned a September 2016 ruling by Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher that mandated a far-reaching overhaul of the state’s education system — including the way it is financed but also touching a variety of educational standards and practices, from special education to teacher evaluations.

Monroe Superintendent of Schools John Battista said the decision was discussed at Monday’s administration meeting, and basically, the state Supreme Court has found that there are basic inequalities in the state’s education system but that it is equitably funded.

“Now is it up to the legislature to develop a funding formula that makes sure that every child in Connecticut gets a good education,” said Battista. “I hope that they don’t use this ruling to ignore the need for a better funding formula for education and that they work with the districts to develop a new formula that benefits all the students.”

The Supreme Court ruled that Moukawsher had exceeded the proper role of the courts in attempting to order repair of the myriad problems contributing to unequal public education in the state that had been shown in the lawsuit brought by the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding (CCJEF) back in 2005.

“In the present case,” the Supreme Court ruled last week, “we acknowledge that the plaintiffs have painted a vivid picture of an imperfect public educational system in this state that is straining to serve many students who, because their basic needs for, among other things, adequate parenting, financial resources, housing, nutrition and care for their physical and psychological health are not being met, cannot take advantage of the educational opportunities that the state is offering.

“We are highly sympathetic to the plight of these struggling students. Indeed, we join our voice to the voices of those who urge the state to do all that it reasonably can to ensure not only that all children in this state have the bare opportunity to receive the minimally adequate education required by article eight of the Connecticut constitution, but also that the neediest children have the support that they need to actually take advantage of that opportunity.

“It is not the function of the courts, however, to create educational policy or to attempt by judicial fiat to eliminate all of the societal deficiencies that continue to frustrate the state’s educational efforts.”

The ruling specifically addressed Connecticut’s dual-source school funding approach, in which the state contributes — with state money, at least in recent years, targeted to direct the bulk of its help to poor or tax-poor towns and cities — but local town and cities provide much of the financing and retain responsibility for budgeting priorities and decisions. The lengthy decision — some 28,000 words — reaches back not only to Moukawsher’s ruling in the CCJEF v. Rell lawsuit (initiated when M. Jodi Rell was governor), but references and builds upon precedent from previous court battles over school financing, such as the 1977 Horton v. Meskill case.

The decision defends wealthier school districts’ right to spend more of their own tax dollars if they wish to, and notes that the distribution of state education money is designed to help the poorer districts.

“This court has recognized that there is a salutary role for preserving local school choice by guaranteeing minimum funds without imposing a ceiling on what a city or town might elect to spend on public education,” last week’s decision says. “The fact that wealthier school districts spent more per pupil than poorer districts by supplementing state educational funds with funds from local property taxes did not render the funding scheme unconstitutional, and the trial court’s finding that state educational spending is skewed in favor of needier school districts showed that the disparities are not so great as to be unconstitutional.”

In the wake of Moukawsher’s 2016 decision, the legislature reworked its school funding practices in an effort to begin dealing with some of the issues raised.

“The ruling by the Supreme Court confirms what many of us believed, that the way in which Connecticut funds public school is indeed constitutional,” said state Rep. J.P. Sredzinski (R-112).

“It may not be perfect and it may not be viewed as “fair” to everyone, but it is legal. What the ruling also tells us is that school funding is up to the legislature, something I also agree with. It is up to a majority of the legislative body of the state to decide how to fund our schools. I predict we will see many proposals in the upcoming session to attempt fixing this formula.”

Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy issued a statement urging the state’s politicians to keep working on the problems defined in the lawsuit.

“This decision concludes this landmark case regarding education funding,” Malloy said. “At the same time, the urgency to continue the fight to distribute greater educational dollars where there is the greatest need has not diminished.”

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