An education ruling from the state Superior Court in Hartford last month could bring more educational funding to New Haven, but runs the risk of doing so at the expense of students with disabilities.
Judge Thomas Moukawsher ruled on Sept. 7 that the state has misallocated educational funds in its public school system and gave state officials 180 days to present a plan to the court to fix its spending. Although the case was filed in 2005 by the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding — a coalition comprised of teachers’ unions, superintendents, citizens and Connecticut cities — it did not garner national attention until the decision was announced early last month.
Though Moukawsher’s decision represented the culmination of a decade-long lawsuit, it does not mean the resolution is final: Shortly after the Sept. 7 ruling, Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen appealed the decision on the grounds that the court had overstepped its jurisdiction. The appeal was granted on Sept. 20 and is now waiting to be heard by the Connecticut Supreme Court.
“New Haven [public schools are] underfunded by tens of millions of dollars,” James J. Finley, Jr., CCJEF principal consultant of operations and government relations, told the News.
Finley said cities and towns across the state are underfunded by more than $600 million, and added that cities with high poverty rates like New Haven are forced to use more money from income taxes for education when the state does not provide adequate funding. This comes with the opportunity cost of diverting money from public safety and social service programs, he said.
According to Finley, Connecticut has an education funding program — the Education Cost Sharing Grant — that uses a formula to determine how much money is allotted to different districts based on particular need. The state legislature, Finley said, has compromised and modified this formula over the year. But for the past two years, it has approximated dollar amounts without using the formula at all, he said.
Despite what CCJEF plaintiffs see as a step in the right direction for Connecticut students, not everyone is equally pleased with Moukawsher’s ruling.
Nancy Alisberg, managing attorney at Connecticut’s Office of Protection and Advocacy for Persons With Disabilities, told the News she is concerned about the way the ruling could impact special education programs in the state.
One section in the ruling declares, “The state’s program of special education funding is irrational.” According to Alisberg, the ruling calls for a standardization of, and criteria for, special education spending.
But standardizing a universal definition for students’ disability could prove tricky given the wide scope of existing disabilities.
Alisberg said the ruling says some students have disabilities that are so profound that they cannot learn, and that schools should stop spending money on such children. She said such a rule would violate federal laws that mandate educational opportunities for all students.
“[Moukawsher is] basically throwing away a whole group of students and saying they have too much of a disability to learn,” she said. “Depending on the nature of a child’s disability, [progress] for one could mean they went up a reading level, or for another it could mean they are able to make eye contact.”
Jepsen, in a WNNH radio interview on Oct. 7, explained the reasons why his office chose to appeal the ruling. He said he respects Moukawsher, but believes he overstepped his institutional role as a judge.
The richest districts in the state receive one-eighth of the funding that the poorest districts receive, according to Jepsen, but Moukawsher said the state must “go even further” in funding poorer districts. Besides special education spending, the ruling also called for teacher evaluations and for new policies on promotion at the end of school years. These are policy questions, according to Jepsen, and are not in the constitutional power of a judge.
The CCJEF suit is the largest case and longest trial in Connecticut history in terms of funding, Jepsen said.