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Landmark ruling in Connecticut: State can no longer allow 'rich districts to flourish, poor to flounder'

In a sweeping ruling Wednesday that will dramatically alter the face of education in Connecticut, a judge called for a reform no state has yet to achieve: An equitable way to fund schools so children from affluent communities do not see greater advantages.

In a lengthy decision he read word for word for three hours, Judge Thomas Moukawsher of State Superior Court in Hartford said school funding in the state was inherently inequitable and enables “rich school districts to flourish and poor school districts to flounder.” He gave the state 180 days to return with a plan of not only how to better fund education, but evaluate and pay teachers and test and graduate students.

The passages in the ruling dealing with the state's lack of real reform have relevance to Georgia, which has long shirked the responsibility to develop a fair funding method and has only dabbled around the edges of this important question.

During the 2017 legislative session, Gov. Nathan Deal is expected to push changes to Georgia's decades-old school funding formula, which remains more wishful thinking than reality. According to its own formula, the state dramatically underfunds its schools every year. For example, even after increasing education spending this year, Georgia underfunded schools by $166 million for the 2017 fiscal year.

Deal plans to build on the recommendations of his Education Reform Commission, which looked at how $8 billion in tax dollars is used to educate 1.7 million students. The recommendations include more flexibility to schools on how they spend state dollars, but not necessarily a lot more dollars to spend. The commission suggested adding $258 million to the education budget, but that still falls short of full funding. Per-pupil spending for Georgia was $9,202 in fiscal 2014, according to a recent U.S. Census analysis. That is $1,807 less than the national average, and puts Georgia 38th in the nation for school spending.

Moukawsher's landmark ruling in the 11-year-old legal clash between the state and the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding is both a call to action and a fierce reprimand.

The judge criticizes state education policies as "so befuddled or misdirected as to be irrational. They lack real and visible links to things known to meet children's needs."

Moukawsher writes:

For instance, the state spends billions of dollars on schools without any binding principle guaranteeing that education aid goes where it's needed. During the recent budget crisis, this left rich schools robbing millions of dollars from poor schools. State graduation and advancement standards are so loose that in struggling cities the neediest are leaving schools with diplomas but without the education we promise them. State standards are leaving teachers with uselessly perfect evaluations and pay that follows only seniority and degrees instead of reflecting need and good teaching.

The judge says the state of Connecticut cannot improve schools by standing on the sidelines "imposing token statewide standards. To keep its promise of adequate schools for all children, the state must rally more forcefully around troubled schools." The Legislature, he says, has to adopt an "honest formula that delivers state aid according to local need."

As The New York Times reported.

Judge Moukawsher’s decision was a response to a lawsuit filed more than a decade ago that claimed the state was shortchanging the poorest districts when it came to school funding. What separates the decision from those in dozens of similar suits around the country is that rather than addressing money only, it requires the state to rethink nearly every major aspect of its system. “This is a game changer,” said Joseph P. Ganim, the mayor of Bridgeport, Conn., one of the state’s poorest and lowest-performing school districts. “It’s an indictment of the application of the system, and of the system itself.”

Joseph P. Moodhe, who represented the plaintiffs in the case, Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding, said that virtually every state had faced an education funding suit. This year, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled that the state’s financing plan created “intolerable” inequities. And in New York, a 2006 lawsuit was supposed to yield additional money in New York City and districts with high poverty rates, but a battle persists over whether the state is meeting its obligations.

William S. Koski, a professor of law and education at Stanford University, called the scope of the ruling “highly unusual.” “Most of these school finance lawsuits are about numbers, and about whether adequate funding is being provided for whatever learning outcomes the court establishes,” he said. “Really, it’s typically about the money.”

The most consistent and complete coverage of this massive lawsuit has come from the Hartford Courant, which reported today:

Judge Thomas Moukawsher's unexpectedly far-reaching decision also directed the state to devise clear standards for both the elementary and high school levels, including developing a graduation test. He also ordered a complete overhaul of Connecticut's system of evaluating teachers, principals and superintendents. And he demanded a change in the "irrational" way the state funds special education services.

Moukawsher's mandates come with a tight deadline: The remedies he is ordering must be submitted to the court within 180 days. It is unclear how the state Department of Education, the legislature and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy will come up with solutions, within six months, to complicated problems that have plagued public education in Connecticut for decades.

"Nothing here was done lightly or blindly,'' Moukawsher said, reading his entire 90-page decision from the bench, a highly unusual undertaking that took close to three hours. "The court knows what its ruling means for many deeply ingrained practices, but it also has a marrow-deep understanding that if they are to succeed where they are most strained, schools have to be about teaching children and nothing else."

In his ruling, Moukawsher branded the teacher evaluation process "dysfunctional" and said it is based on inflated standards that have resulted in nearly every educator graded as proficient or exemplary. This drew a sharp response from Jan Hochadel, president of the American Federation of Teachers-Connecticut.

Moukawsher's comments regarding accountability and teacher evaluations "were not just disappointing, but disrespectful of education professionals." The extraordinary ruling orders the state to revamp virtually all areas of public education -- from the hiring and firing of teachers, to special education services, to education standards for elementary and high school students. He also criticized the state's generous reimbursement policy for school construction projects, especially in an age of decreasing enrollment.

"To get rid of an irrational policy, adopt a rational one,'' Moukawsher said in his ruling. "It's the court's job to require the state to have one. It's the state's job to develop one. The court will judge the state's solutions, and if they meet the standards described in this decision, uphold them."

Take a look at the ruling and share your thoughts. I have to add other judges in other states have issued other blistering assessments of state funding mechanism with little real change.


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.