CCJEF: The Decision

After 11 years, 826 exhibits, over 50 witnesses, thousands of pages of briefing, 1,060 findings of fact, and 60 days of trial over a six-month period, a decision was finally issued in the landmark case Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding, Inc., et al. v. M. Jodi Rell, et al., on Wednesday, September 7, 2016.  Before a packed courtroom of attorneys, CCJEF members, and reporters, Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher delivered the Court’s 90-page opinion from the bench from 11:00 a.m. until approximately 3:00 p.m. (with a one-hour lunch break).  What ordinarily is a relatively quiet, sometimes anti-climactic procedure, was anything but in what seemed at times an atmosphere more of theater than of jurisprudence.  The substance of the decision, however, was thoughtful, well-reasoned, and far-reaching.

Moukawsher began with a quote from Abigail Adams:  “Learning is not attained by chance.”  This remark was particularly apt given the Court’s finding that the state’s educational funding system, which is “robbing millions of dollars from poor schools” in favor of wealthier ones, is seemingly based more in chance than in reasoned logic.  Consider the case of the 2016 education spending bill which, in the midst of a “bone-crushing” budget crisis, cut a total of $5,351,595 in funding from impoverished districts such as Hartford (-$1,003,800), Waterbury(-$668,272), and Bridgeport (-$905,293), while in the same bill—“without formula or explanation”—awarded funding increases totaling $5,170,282 to wealthier districts like Glastonbury (+$263,457), West Hartford (+$1,494,623), and Shelton (+$686,007).  Although the Court found that the plaintiffs did not meet their burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the state’s educational funding levels are unconstitutional, the same could not be said of its funding scheme.  The Court held that, “Beyond a reasonable doubt, Connecticut is defaulting on its Constitutional duty to provide adequate public school opportunities because it has no rational, substantial and verifiable plan to distribute money for education aid and school construction.”    

As Moukawsher put it, “The state’s latitude to decide how much overall money to spend on schools doesn’t mean the state can have a constitutionally adequate school program while spending its money whimsically. . . . A rational education plan has a substantial and verifiable link between educating children and the means used to do it.”

Moukawsher noted that the problems Connecticut public school students face are masked by what Stanford University Professor Sam Savage calls “the flaw of averages.”  Although Connecticut, based on standardized test scores, has on average some of the world’s best students, “Averages mislead when they cut across wide extremes.”  For a hypothetical, Moukawsher imagined Bill Gates moving into the town of Windham with an average household income of $30,000.  “If Bill Gates moved in, Windham’s average household income would soar.  Windham would look rich, but typical income in the town wouldn’t have changed at all.  So it is with Connecticut’s schools.  Many soar, but some sink.” 

Bridgeport and Fairfield County offer a perfect microcosm of this state-wide problem.  “The people of the city are so poor that the federal government makes no distinctions but gives free lunch to all of its 21,500 students.  Its unemployment rate in recent years has hovered near 12%.  The per capita income in that town was recently measured at $20,000 in a county where some towns’ per capita income exceeds $95,000.  Its median household income is $41,050 in a county where some towns’ median household income exceeds $200,000. . . . 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.”  Moukawsher scolded the state for its irresponsible and irrational educational spending in recent years, adding, “There is no room for a slack system to support cities like Bridgeport.” 

The decision also addressed the state’s high school graduation problem.  Moukawsher decried the “patronizing and illusory” diplomas that are issued by the state’s poorest districts, noting that “a solid majority” of students in these schools are graduating without being “college and career ready,” while the opposite is true in wealthier districts.  The pressure to graduate students has created this problem, since federal and state aid is tied, at least in part, to graduation rates.  Sticking with the example of Bridgeport, just 1.9% of students in Bridgeport are college and career ready according to recent PSAT scores, while only 10% are ready according to SAT scores.  Moukawsher noted that the lack of a substantial and rational graduation standard leaves students to scrape together enough money to attend a community college, where they hope to obtain the basic literacy and numeracy skills that they should have attained for free in their public schools.

The Court also dissected the state’s teacher evaluation system, which Moukawsher characterized as “little more than cotton candy in a rainstorm.”  His major criticism of the system was that it is not tied to student performance and he asked, “Why bother measuring how students are doing if it never has any direct connection to how they’re being taught?”  The Court held that, “Beyond a reasonable doubt the state’s teacher evaluation system creates no rational, substantial, and verifiable link between teacher evaluations and student learning.  It’s not merely a matter of the standard being weak.  The standard fails the constitutional test because it doesn’t even honestly do what it says its doing.”  The Court further held that both the teacher evaluation and teacher compensation systems were irrational, and this “denies students constitutionally adequate opportunities to learn.”

Of particular interest to the CHRO, the Court also found that the state’s program of special education spending is irrational.  Moukawsher examined the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which requires schools to provide all students with disabilities with a free and appropriate public education (FAPE), even, as the Court noted, “profoundly, multiply-disabled children.”  Moukawsher cited the case of Timothy W. v. Rochester, New Hampshire School District, 875 F.2d. 954 (1989), in which the First Circuit Court of Appeals found that the Defendant school district was required to provide an “appropriate” education to a student missing most of his cerebral cortex, leaving him only able to “respond to light and other things just enough to let people know he was experiencing them.”  The Court apparently feels that Connecticut and other states have held too firmly to the First Circuit’s directive.  Moukawsher criticized the state for directing schools to transport, care for and provide extensive services for multiply-disabled children regardless whether the state can do anything that would look to most people like education.”  Noting that the “cost of special education is staggering,” Moukawsher identified two central problems with special education:  “First is the problem on spending education money on those in special education who cannot receive any form of elementary or secondary education.  Second is the evidence that shows that getting picked for special education in this state is mostly arbitrary and depends not on rational criteria but on where children live and what pressures the system faces in their name.”

Moukawsher’s conclusion with regard to special education funding will be hard to swallow for many in the special education community:  “Neither federal law nor educational logic says that schools have to spend fruitlessly on some at the expense of others in need. . . . This kind of spending is hard to square with seeing the constitution as requiring a substantial, rational, and verifiable connection between things schools do and things that teach kids.  That thinking must at least require schools to spend education money on education.  It means schools shouldn’t be forced to spend their education budgets on other social needs—however laudable—at the expense of special education children who can learn and all the other children who can learn along with them.  The first step is for schools to identify and focus their efforts on those disabled students who can profit from some form of elementary and secondary education.  This will require state standards to address this issue and require school districts to make the necessary judgments.”

But this is a slippery slope.  Who, precisely, will make these “necessary judgments” in the local school districts?  Who will decide which students are “deserving” of an elementary or secondary education, and which are not?  How will this be decided?  From a purely legal standpoint, this holding seems to fly in the face of federal law, which as the Court itself notes, requires all students to receive an “appropriate” education.  It seems that the Court is saying that an “appropriate” education for some severely disabled students may be no education at all.

At the close of his opinion, Moukawsher ordered the state to, within 180 days from the date of his decision, “propose changes consistent with this opinion on the following subjects:

  • the relationship between the state and local government in education.
  • an educational aid formula;
  • a definition of elementary and secondary education;
  • standards for hiring, firing, evaluating and paying education professionals;
  • funding, identification, and educational services standards for special education.

Once the state submits its proposed remedies, the plaintiffs will have 60 days to comment on them and propose alternatives.  A hearing will then be scheduled.”  The court has retained jurisdiction over this case until it has reviewed and approved the proposals. 

Moukawsher clarified that the remedies do not have to be “ideal” or “perfectly equal” to withstand judicial scrutiny.  The continuing echo throughout the opinion, as is clearly evident from this blog post, is that they must be “rationally, substantially, and verifiably” related to teaching students.  As the title of the decision’s conclusion reads, “Schools are for kids.”  Moukawsher acknowledged the breadth of the trial and the reach of his decision, and assured the parties that “nothing here was done lightly or blindly . . . but . . . if they are to succeed where they are most strained schools must be about teaching children and nothing else.”  Moukawsher repeatedly stressed that the state’s responsibility to educate is a non-delegable duty.  “The state has to accept that the schools are its blessing and its burden, and if it cannot be wise, it must at least be sensible.”