Connecticut
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Connecticut

adequacy ruling issued in connecticut coalition for justice in education funding, inc. v. rell (2016)

The long-awaited decision in the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding, Inc. v. Rell case was issued on September 7, 2016.1 The Superior Court decision stemmed from an adequacy lawsuit in which plaintiffs from high poverty school districts held that inadequate school funding denied children suitable educational opportunities and failed to prepare them for career and/or college and participation as democratic citizens.2 The ruling was the culmination of a six-month trial and included 5,000 exhibits, 58 witnesses, and 1,000 findings of fact.3 The court held that Connecticut's public education system violated the state constitution calling it "irrational" and "in violation of students' constitutional right to an adequate education."4 The judge ordered the legislature to develop an education plan that is "rational, substantial, and verifiable" within 180 days.5

While, primarily a school finance adequacy lawsuit, the decision went beyond the parameters of school funding to address multiple areas of K-12 educational policy, including the role of state and local government in relationship to public schools, defining elementary and secondary education including the possible creation of standards, the potential establishment of a high school graduation exam, the hiring, evaluation, and compensation of teachers, and special education identification and funding.6 This update will focus on the school finance portion of decision. [End Page 1]

the trial court's findings

"The state is responsible for the condition of our schools: It's duty to educate is non-delegable."7

Rooted in Article eighth of the Connecticut State Constitution, the ruling referenced the Horton (1977) decision in which the court first proclaimed an affirmative constitutional obligation to provide an equal right to education.8 While the Moukawsher decision accorded a place for local control and school districts, it indicated that the Horton court "did not see them as an obstacle to imposing a plan that sent more money to poor towns than rich ones."9 The court directed the General Assembly to create a state plan to equalize spending between school districts resulting in the Guaranteed Tax Base in 1979. Ultimately, the "state's responsibility for what happens in schools is non-delegable."10 Moukawsher also envisioned a more robust role for state government including the possibility of court orders to increase the power of the State Board of Education and the Department of Education with the ability to take over troubled schools.11

state spending on public education

"The courts may impose reason in state spending, but beyond a bare minimum they may not dictate how much to spend."12

In recognition of the Horton v. Meskill (1985) precedent, which prohibited the court from setting spending levels beyond a bare minimum, the decision stated: "The court is constitutionally unfit to set the amount of money the state has to spend on schools."13 It also acknowledged that the state spends more than the bare minimum on education and that Connecticut meets the constitutional threshold of minimum adequacy.14 Moreover, since 2002 the state has directed new funds through the Alliance District program and Commissioner's Network [End Page 2] totaling an additional four hundred million state dollars to the lowest performing school districts.15

"Whatever the state spends on education it must at least spend rationally."16

While acknowledging that Connecticut spends more than the bare minimum on schools, the judge took issue with the manner in which the state distributes aid to school districts referring to the process as haphazard and irrational and called on the state to adhere to the rational standards set forth by the Supreme Court which "requires the state's spending plan be rationally, substantially, and verifiably connected to creating educational opportunities for children". He directed the the legislature to stick to "an honest formula that delivers state aid according to local need."17 Since 1989, the Connecticut General Assembly has repeatedly departed from the Education Cost Sharing Formula, the primary equalization method by which Connecticut distributes state aid to school districts.18 The Connecticut General Assembly has frequently departed from the statutory formula, often failing...