It was a 12-year legal battle that began as a challenge to Connecticut’s education funding system and came to touch on issues ranging from graduation requirements to teacher evaluations. On Wednesday, it reached its likely conclusion when the State Supreme Court said Connecticut was fulfilling its constitutional obligation to its public school students.
States across the country have faced legal challenges about how they spend money in schools and whether they spend enough on poor students, but this case, Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding v. Rell, took a remarkable turn in 2016 when a judge deemed the funding system irrational and ordered the state to reform nearly every pillar of its education policies. This week, the state’s highest court overturned that ruling, saying such reforms should be left to the political process.
“It is not the function of the courts, however, to create educational policy or to attempt by judicial fiat to eliminate all of the societal deficiencies that continue to frustrate the state’s educational efforts,” said the decision, written by Chase T. Rogers, the chief justice.
“Once a determination of minimal adequacy has been made,” the chief justice wrote, “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. Such judgments are quintessentially legislative in nature.”
In a sea of similar cases, the 2016 ruling, issued by Judge Thomas Moukawsher of State Superior Court in Hartford, stood out for its scope and its approach to the problems presented. In a strongly worded decision, which he spent more than two hours reading from the bench, he assailed special education programming and teacher shortages, the way spending decisions were made and the achievements required of students to advance from one grade to the next. In his decision, he said that the Bridgeport superintendent had acknowledged that a “functionally illiterate person could get a Bridgeport high school degree.” Students in wealthy districts, meanwhile, were flourishing.
As its final maneuver, the Connecticut Coalition for Justice said it would file a motion asking the court to reconsider. Asking a court to take a second look at its own ruling is rarely successful.
“We believe our attorneys made a very compelling case that the present K-12 public education system does not work for many of our students, particularly our poorer and English Language Learning students,” said James J. Finley, principal consultant for the Connecticut Coalition for Justice. “We believe that the present conditions are unconstitutional and are deeply disappointed that the court found otherwise.”
William S. Koski, a professor of education at Stanford Law School, said the decision echoes other recent rulings in other parts of the country, in which judges have shown a reluctance to “take a deep dive into educational policy.”
As part of its decision, Mr. Koski noted, the court said the state was not constitutionally required to compensate for societal and social problems, like poverty, that might affect how students do in school. Instead, the court said those were policy decisions for the legislature to make.
“Although the plaintiffs have convincingly demonstrated that in this state there is a gap in educational achievement between the poorest and neediest students and their more fortunate peers,” the decision said, “disparities in educational achievement, standing alone, do not constitute proof that our state constitution’s equal protection provisions have been violated.
“The plaintiffs have not shown that this gap is the result of the state’s unlawful discrimination against poor and needy students in its provision of educational resources as opposed to the complex web of disadvantaging societal conditions over which the schools have no control,” the decision said. “Indeed, the trial court found that the state is providing significantly more educational resources to schools with large numbers of poor and needy students than to other schools.”
Jennifer Alexander, chief executive of Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now, an education advocacy group, said the suggestion that schools cannot be expected to help students overcome the challenges of poverty was dispiriting. “I find it particularly disturbing given that we know kids from any background can achieve at the highest level when given the right opportunity. We see it all across Connecticut, but the reality is we haven’t had the political will to expand those opportunities,” she said.
The state’s governor, Dannel P. Malloy, and its attorney general, George Jepsen, both issued statements on Wednesday that said the decision does not diminish the urgency of addressing educational inequities. But without a court order, some fear that is exactly what will happen.
“I think a lot of folks were hoping the court would create pressure and compel action, but to be honest, it was never clear how the court would hold state leaders accountable if they didn’t take action,” Ms. Alexander said. “I think that ultimately falls on Connecticut families and voters, to hold our leaders accountable.”