Superintendent reacts to court ruling
Updated 7:20 pm, Friday, September 16, 2016
WESTPORT — Addressing last week’s thunderous decision to overhaul the manner in which Connecticut’s public school resources are distributed and standards are enforced, Superintendent Colleen Palmer called the ruling significant and complex.
“This is probably one of the most far-reaching decisions that will need to be sorted out,” Palmer said at Monday’s Board of Education meeting.
Handed down by State Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher in Hartford, the ruling orders the state to concoct a new funding prescription that the court will review to ensure it “rationally, substantially, and verifiably connects education spending with educational need.” Additionally, it mandates the state produce a new standard for graduation with possible exit exams in order to graduate, define elementary and secondary education, implement a fresh method to evaluate teachers and create updated standards for special education.
The 254-page decision, which took Moukawsher over two hours to read, gave the state 180 days to come back with a plan to distribute money to schools in a constitutional way — one which gives all children, across every district in the state, a “fair opportunity for an elementary and secondary school education.” The case of Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding v. Rell, was originally filed in 2005.
“To put it as a legal proposition, beyond a bare minimum, it is for the General Assembly to decide how much to spend on schools, but the state must at least deploy in its schools resources and standards that are rationally, substantially, and verifiably connected to teaching children,” Moukawsher wrote. “It isn’t a lot to ask, but asking it raises doubts about many of our state’s key education policies.”
The judge highlighted that under the current system, municipalities with high-value property — wealthier ones — are inherently better positioned to fund their school system.
“Connecticut municipalities get 70% of their revenue from property taxes and spend most of that revenue on schools, so a property poor town is a town that has less for its schools,” Moukawsher wrote. “While Bridgeport has almost eight times as many people, the taxable property in the nearby town of New Canaan is worth over $1 billion more than all of the taxable property in crowded Bridgeport. The taxable property in nearby Greenwich is worth more than four times that in Bridgeport though it has less than half the population.”
Palmer doesn’t know how Westport will be affected by the judgment, but she has spoken about the ruling with other superintendents in the state and believes time will tell.
“I think it’s logical that there may be some legal challenges,” Palmer said. “So I think it’s going to take some time for us to understand what the ramifications of the decision are.”
Despite the six-month window for the state to create a more “rational” approach, Palmer believes the period borders on not providing enough time to do so.
“Because the decision is so far-reaching, there are tenants of the decision that go into looking at the state and recrafting its entire teacher evaluation system. It touches special education in some of our most handicapped students, in terms of how those students will be served. It talks about holding us all accountable, in the state of Connecticut for outcomes of our graduates of high school and there is even a discussion about an exit exam from high school,” Palmer said.
“While the court has given the state of Connecticut — in its decision — 180 days to change its funding for education plan, I think that’s very ambitious. I don’t know if it can be accomplished,” the superintendent added.
Palmer’s worries may never come to fruition as an appeal is in the works.
On Thursday Attorney General George Jepsen said that the state will seek a direct appeal to the Connecticut Supreme Court. The appeal alleges, “The trial court improperly created and applied a sweeping new legal standard to assert judicial control over educational policy” and took “an uncharted and legally unsupported path.”
Moukawsher’s ruling that spending for education and policies must be “rationally, substantially, and verifiably” tied to educational need is disputed in the appeal as “entirely made up” and giving the judicial system wide-ranging power over education policy. The appeal goes further in criticizing Moukawsher’s decision: “The court effectively appointed itself as the ultimate arbiter not only of the Constitution, but also of the State’s educational policy.”