Rings a Bell???
Over the last four decades, courts in many states have ruled that school funding formulas violate their state constitutions by denying children in poor communities the opportunity to receive an effective education.
These rulings have focused mainly on money. But a sweeping opinion issued last week by a state judge in Connecticut went beyond criticizing funding policies. He ordered the state to revamp major aspects of the system — including special education services, teacher evaluations and hollow requirements that “in some places have nearly destroyed the meaning of high school graduation and left children rising from elementary school to high school without knowing how to read, write and do math well enough to move up.” The blistering ruling should shame lawmakers, who have for decades looked away from the problem of educational inequality.
The ruling, by Judge Thomas Moukawsher of State Superior Court in Hartford, came in response to a lawsuit filed more than a decade ago by a group claiming that the state school funding system was unconstitutional and unfair to poor communities. The judge agreed, but he left it to legislators to determine how much money should be spent on education statewide. He nevertheless criticized the way the Legislature amended the 2016 budget and cut funding to several poor districts, like Bridgeport and Hartford, while preserving increases to wealthier towns — without explanation or reference to a formula.
Lawmakers were not committed to a principled, constitutional system that distributed aid based on need and on sound educational practices, the judge said. He found that the recent budget crisis “left rich schools robbing millions of dollars from poor schools” and left open the possibility that at any time funds could be moved “away from starving cities to rich suburbs for no good reason.” The system, he said, can work only if the state uses an honest formula that delivers aid based on need.
After seeing the vast gulf between achievement levels and graduation rates in poor and wealthy communities, the judge chastised the state for standing on the sidelines, “imposing token statewide standards” that had no demonstrable, verifiable connection to student learning.
The state standards were so loose, he said, that students in struggling communities were left with meaningless diplomas. Touching on what will clearly be a sore point with unions, he noted that teachers who should be evaluated on how well they teach were instead being measured by “useless” evaluations and paid based on seniority and the number of degrees they held.
He criticized the special-education policy, saying it called for costly services but offered no system for judging whether they were successful and were delivered to the right students. The state’s failure to fulfill its constitutional duty to take responsibility for public education — and its insistence on delegating it to localities — had “left rich districts to flourish and poor districts to flounder,” he said.
The ruling requires that the state start to fix its broken system. It must follow a school funding formula based on school need and sound educational practices, develop standards that give children a chance at an effective education, and tie the terms of teacher employment to factors that are known to promote better education.
The state has not yet decided whether to appeal. Either way, it should welcome the judge’s invitation to think more broadly about the problem of educational inequality. And other states should examine their educational deficiencies in the holistic way Judge Moukawsher did.