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Another State, Another Inequitable School Funding Formula

Yesterday, a judge ruled that major reforms are needed to Connecticut’s public schools and school funding formulas.

By Dwyer Gunn


(Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

Yesterday, Connecticut Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher issued a scathing ruling in an equitable education funding lawsuit that’s been winding its way through the state’s courts for more than 10 years. Moukawsher read his entire 90-page ruling from the bench (which took almost three hours). This passage from the text of the ruling pretty much sums up the ruling’s main conclusions, as well as its tone:

Requiring at least a substantially rational plan for education is a problem in this state because many of our most important policies are so befuddled or misdirected as to be irrational. They lack real and visible links to things known to meet children’s needs. For instance, the state spends billions of dollars on schools without any binding principle guaranteeing that education aid goes where it’s needed. During the recent budget crisis, this left rich schools robbing millions of dollars from poor schools. State graduation and advancement standards are so loose that in struggling cities the neediest are leaving schools with diplomas but without the education we promise them. State standards are leaving teachers with uselessly perfect evaluations and pay that follows only seniority and degrees instead of reflecting need and good teaching. With the state requiring expensive services but doing nothing to see they’re going to the right people in the right way, special education spending is also adrift. … Instead of the state honoring its promise of adequate schools, this paralysis has left rich school districts to flourish and poor school districts to flounder.

As I wrote earlier this year, school funding formulas, which often result in vastly unequal per-pupil funding across wealthy and poor school districts, have emerged as something of an education battleground in recent years. In February, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled that the state’s legislature needed to revise the state’s funding formulas. South Carolina, Mississippi, and New York have all faced similar suits, and a lawsuit in Pennsylvania is ongoing.

The Connecticut decision, however, is unique because of its sheer scope. Unlike previous state-level decisions, which have focused solely on funding formulas, Moukawsher’s ruling mandates sweeping reforms of the state’s entire public school system. The decision requires the state’s attorney general to submit plans for reform (within 180 days) across four main areas: funding formulas; educational standards for elementary and secondary schools; the state’s system for evaluating, hiring, and firing teachers and other administrators; and special education services funding.

The issues raised in this lawsuit aren’t unique to Connecticut.

Local politicians and education advocates described the broad decision as historical. Mark Boughton, the mayor of Danbury, told the Hartford Courant that the decision was “a sweeping indictment of the education system in Connecticut…. He left no stone unturned.” Luke Bronin, the mayor of Hartford, said that the decision “shines a bright light on the profound inequalities that exist between school districts and holds out the promise of real reform to our educational system and funding structure.”

Education experts seem to agree. William Koski, a law and education professor at Stanford University, told the New York Timesthe ruling was “highly unusual,” adding that he would describe it as a “ school reform decision rather than a school funding decision.”

While Connecticut plays host to a number of high-performing schools (and students), those schools are predominately located in wealthier areas, and a substantial income achievement gap exists in the state, a fact that Moukawsher also referenced in his ruling:

The achievement gap between the rich and poor in Connecticut is not just because our rich do so well. If it were, our poor would consistently outpace the poor in poorer states. But they don’t. According to 2013 NAEP tests, Connecticut’s poor children are no better readers than the poor anywhere else in the country and do worse at math. In fact, 2015 NAEP results show that poor children in 40 other states did better in math than Connecticut’s poor—including children in places like Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana — 10 did about the same, and nobody did worse.

The issues raised in this lawsuit aren’t unique to Connecticut. The income achievement gap in this country is significant (although new research suggests it may be beginning to narrow), and Connecticut actually ranks well above average with respect to overall funding levels and funding distribution, which perhaps speaks most to the dismal performance of some other states with respect to these measures. This lawsuit, however, argues that the status quo simply cannot continue.

Or, as Moukawsher writes: “change must come.”