CCJEF v. Rell: Connecticut Educational Funding on Trial

On Tuesday, January 12, 2016, the trial got underway in the long-awaited case of the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding Inc., et al (CCJEF) v. Rell.  The central issue is whether the educational funding system in Connecticut is so unbalanced between our state’s school districts that it violates the State Constitutional guarantee of equal education for all our students. The plaintiffs in the case seek major reform of the funding system on the grounds that it is currently over reliant on property taxes. The result is that public schools in wealthy districts are able to offer a higher quality education than students from poorer towns receive. This, in turn, widens the state’s already staggering achievement gap which is among the worst in the nation.

The case has a long history dating back to 2007 when a superior court initially ruled that
Connecticut’s Constitution did not create an enforceable right to “suitable” educational opportunity. The ruling was appealed to the Connecticut Supreme Court who, in 2010, ruled that the State Constitution encompassed a minimum qualitative standard that could be enforced by the courts. The second part of the ruling is what makes the current case potentially monumental – budgetary issues are normally the sole province of the legislature but the Supreme Court held courts could get involved in telling the General Assembly to change the way it funds education in Connecticut.

The trial underway right now will determine whether such judicial intervention is required. Testimony has already started to cover the disparities in funding and the effect that has on our state’s children. The issue is of particular importance given how wrapped up the issues of race and disabilities are in it. The underfunded Bridgeport public schools, for example, are about 48% Hispanic and 38% African-American with 15% of their total student population receiving special educational services. The low-wealth and high-poverty of the Bridgeport tax base means that this predominantly minority-student school system cannot provide the kind of services that richer districts can provide. Well-funded music and art programs, foreign language courses, and summer classes that can open doors for wealthier students are denied to those in schools unable to afford such opportunities.

The funding problem becomes even worse for students who require special needs services such as social workers, paraprofessionals, and more. These students require specialized programs to not fall behind their peers and come out of school unprepared for the challenges they will face. The current reality is that two students with the same disability from different parts of the state may enter adulthood with very different skill sets because of the services their schools can afford with the money given by the General Assembly.

The effects of this funding disparity are not limited to childhood. There are measurable differences in college entrance exam scores, dropout rates, and eventual income that are all associated with the educational opportunities provided in school. This lack of funding for poorer districts feeds into a cycle of poverty that makes it especially difficult for students to escape.

The Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities has been permitted to file a memorandum as an amicus in support of the Plaintiffs. We will continue to provide coverage through the months ahead with regular updates on the trial and the legal matters involved with it. Those interested in issues surrounding the case are encouraged to attend the Commission’s upcoming School-to-Prison Pipeline Follow Up Conference this afternoon, February 17th from 4:00 to 6:00 at the State Capitol building in the Old Judiciary room and our Racial Justice Conference on February 22nd from 3:00 to 5:00 in the same room.