he Connecticut judge who September 7th gave the State six months to redesign its school financing to be “rationally, substantially, and verifiably calculated to achieve educational opportunities” did so with a book-length breakdown on what is wrong.  Especially with the alarming achievement disparities concentrated in the cities, he declared, “There is no place to hide this bad news.”  Except with an appeal.

The State’s decision today to appeal the decision only delays the day of reckoning for educational inequity in Connecticut.  The notion, from the attorney general, that the judicial decision in an 11-year-old case would compromise the representative branches of state government, turns reality on its head.  The judge merely told the legislature to stop passing the buck and ignoring its constitutional duty.

This court ruling centered on Bridgeport, but revealed that among 14 town budgets cut by some $5.3 million this year, Hartford led the way with a loss of $1 million in state funds.  The offset, among others, went to West Hartford, Simsbury, and Glastonbury, with $1.5 million, $288k, and $263k allocations, respectively. If this view won out, the legislature “would be free to make today’s $5 million tomorrow’s $50 million and the next day’s $500 million,” the court warned.

In his 90-page decision in the CCJEF v. Rell case, Judge Thomas Moukawsher grounded his decision on an incredible 1,060 footnotes looking at the 30 most hard-pressed cities and 139 other towns sucking at the same public trough.  Judge Moukawsher’s exhaustive analysis pointed out that the State is:

  • Creating a Conveyor Belt to Meaningless HS Graduation.  “The state is letting graduation rates rise without them meaning that there are more educated people among us,” he wrote.  The superficial, subjective, and easily circumvented systems are the root of the problem when it comes to useful diplomas, the judge concluded.
  • Failing Poor Kids.  Poor children in 40 other states did better on a 2015 national math assessment than did Connecticut’s poor students.  Other data say the same thing.
  • Propagating a Dysfunctional Teacher Evaluation System.  With “no way to know who the best teachers are and no rational or substantial connection between their compensation and their effect on teaching children,” as the judge put it, the evaluation systems are impermissibly disconnected from student learning.

Indeed, he compared the empty teacher evaluation system to the meaningless process that gives high school students a mortar board and little else. “It hardly seems unreasonable to evaluate teachers partly based on how much their students have learned from them,” the judge wrote.  Evaluating principals and superintendents is handled even more loosely, the judge noted.

  • Perhaps Spending Enough, but Doing So, Irrationally.  The problem clearly isn’t under-spending.  “But if the egregious gaps between rich and poor school districts in this state don’t require more overall state spending, they at least cry out for coherently calibrated state spending.” Some 20 percent of district budgets go toward special education; is that enough … or too much?  Should we know?
  • Making Local Control a Convenient Excuse.  The State has tended to oversee education under authorizing laws – and to deflect responsibility under the theorem of local control.  This is a bob and a weave; you can’t assert authority over – and then whimsically delegate it to – the locals when it suits you.
  • Not Defining a “Rational, Substantial, and Verifiable” Effective Standard for Elementary Education.  This is especially important given that use of early reading strategies has been described by one trial witness as akin to “medical triage,” to prevent children from staying back and eventually dropping out.  Defining elementary education is a must, the judge concluded, adding that expert recommendations might gain some heft “if the rest of school stopped for students who leave Third Grade without basic literacy skills.”
  • Going to Have to Deal with the Remedy Stage.  “The only thing that would make neither progress on the ground nor with the court is a plan that is more of a dodge than a to-do list,” the judge advised.  Two jobs must be taken on, he ruled:  The State has to require a rational policy; and the State has to develop one, with respect to:
    • The relationship with the State and local governments in education;
    • An educational aid formula;
    • A definition of elementary and secondary education;
    • Standards for hiring, firing, evaluating, and paying education professionals; and
    • The finding, identification, and educational services standards for special education.

In the annals of dozens of U.S. state school finance equity cases, stemming from the genesis of the firstSerrano rulings in California in the 1960s and continuing through our own state’s Horton v. Meskill decisions, the CCJEF ruling stands out for its directness.

“To get rid of an irrational policy, adopt a rational one,” the judge stated in what is a careful and comprehensive decision that, even on appeal, will be very hard to dispute.

The New York Times article, and its editorial giving the State an F-minus, stood out in the analyses, as did theHartford Courant synthesis and the commentary by Courant columnist Colin McEnroe.  NPR analyzed it here. The New Yorker looked at the case here.

The Bottom Line.  This enormous decision sent a message to the states, including ours, to stop messing around with constitutional interpretations and evading responsibilities.  Most school finance equity cases have been ping-ponging between the courts and legislatures for decades.  And now it seems that after 11 years of waiting, we’ll have to wait a few more, given the appeal.  Around and around we go.

With the governor being an original plaintiff on the case, we would have thought the outcome of this would be different.  Shame on us for thinking the State was ready to address its problems.

The truth is that that impending war between the “have” towns and the “have-not” cities is one that can’t happen soon enough, as the future of our State depends on how that war is fought and won.

While some spend the next five years waiting for the court to mandate change, let us in Hartford find other ways, for the time being, to solve our problems.  Let’s focus on Sheff v. O’Neill and getting that right, for the children waiting in the wings.  Let’s look at what policies and practices in our own town lead to inequity and address those head on.  Let’s show the way forward.  You can’t read the judge’s ruling and not feel a sense of urgency to do something, regardless of whether our state leaders are not.

Whether or not you are still trying to sneak in some final summer reading, this judge’s decision will tell you more about education in our state than you ever knew.  Give it a skim.