Yale Daily News

A 13-year-old case that had the potential to bring about a broad reworking of Connecticut’s education funding system was halted by the state’s highest court on Wednesday.

Late Wednesday night, a split Connecticut State Supreme Court overruled a historic lower-court decision, which had ordered the state to dramatically alter its allocation of public education funding and required significant changes in teacher evaluations, educational standards and special-education services. In the decision, the Supreme Court left the contentious issue up to the state’s legislature, stating that Connecticut meets the  minimum education requirements stipulated by its constitution.

“While it’s not unexpected that the court would ultimately defer to the legislative branch at creating an [equitable public funding] system,” said William Clark, New Haven Public Schools’ chief operating officer. “The problem … is that those systems haven’t gotten it done, and there [are] still stark disparities in resources and ultimately in the achievement gaps, that are clearly, by any statistical measure going along the lines of socio-economics, going along the lines of race and so forth.”

This ruling puts the brakes on a September 2016 decision by Judge Thomas Moukawsher on a case brought by the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding, a state education reform organization. Moukawsher ruled that the state was not fulfilling its constitutional duty to educate children from low-income households because of large differences in college- and career-readiness between high- and low-income towns.

The case was first filed in 2005 against then-Gov. M. Jodi Rell, according to Jim Finley, the principal consultant for the CCJEF. In 2010, the State Supreme Court ruled that the concept of “adequacy” was a right protected by the state constitution and broadly defined it as “the opportunity to receive an education that would prepare a student for further education, employment and ability to be active in civic life,” Finley said. After the 2010 ruling, the case was sent to a trial court to further define the concept of  adequacy before the 2016 decision.

But this week Chief Justice Rodgers wrote a 53-page majority opinion in which he argued that the function of the court is to determine whether the narrow and specific criteria for a minimally adequate educational system are satisfied, under Connecticut’s constitution.

“Courts simply are not in a position to determine whether schools in poorer districts would be better off expending scarce additional resources on more teachers, more computers, more books, more technical staff, more meals, more guidance counselors, more health care, more English instruction, greater preschool availability or some other resource,” the opinion read.

The opinion said the judges are in agreement with advocates in sympathizing with struggling students and suggesting the need to ensure all children receive “minimally adequate education.”

In a statement, Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen, who had filed the appeal on the state’s behalf, praised the high court’s decision but said the ruling should not affect the urgency with which legislators address education funding issues.

Aside from determining “constitutionality deficiency,” Jepsen said, the courts should leave education policy matters to the state’s legislature.

Finley said the Coalition was surprised by the decision, as the court agreed in the ruling that CCJEF had demonstrated that there was an achievement gap between poor and English language-learning children in Connecticut and their more affluent counterparts, but it still decided it was not the court’s role to order the other branches of government into action.

“If the executive and legislative branches of state government had done their job and protected the state constitutional rights of all students, particularly our poor students, CCJEF would never have been in the courts in the first place,” Finley said. “We felt that it was the court’s duty and responsibility to protect the state’s constitutional rights of our poor students.”

Justice Richard N. Palmer, joined by two other justices, wrote the minority opinion, which argued that the state should not have ruled on the matter and should have sent the case back for a new trial.

NHPS’s Clark said he believes the trial court judge convincingly conveyed the idea that there was not enough funding to provide for the public education that is required for the state’s constitution. Although he is hopeful there will be changes to Connecticut’s education funding system in the future, he said, the issue remains time-sensitive.

“Every year that goes by, that’s another year those kids don’t get education back,” Clark said. “There’s no makeup here and it’s a critical thing we have to pursue with all deliberate speed.”

Isabel Bysiewicz | isabel.bysiewicz@yale.edu