It wasn’t a surprise that Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen announced Sept. 15 that the state is appealing the landmark Sept. 7 decision in State Superior Court in Hartford on the way public education in funded.
In his long-awaited, highly detailed, and at times poetic decision in CCJEF v. Rell, Judge Thomas Moukawsher ordered reforms so fundamental and broad that implementing the judge’s decision would bring dramatic changes to almost every aspect of public education in Connecticut.
“This decision would wrest educational policy from the representative branches of state government, limit public education for some students with special needs, create additional municipal mandates concerning graduation and other standards, and alter the basic terms of educators’ employment – and entrust all of those matters to the discretion of a single, unelected judge,” the Attorney General said in his statement on appealing the decision to the Connecticut Supreme Court.
Whatever the outcome of that appeal, the underlying issues in the case are not going away.
The CCJEF v. Rell lawsuit, filed more than a decade ago by the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding, centered on the allegation that the state’s funding formula shortchanged the poorest districts, heightening the disadvantages for students in those districts.
“This is a landmark victory for Connecticut’s public school students,” Herbert C. Rosenthal, the CCJEF president, said in reaction to Judge Moukawsher’s decision, which may be on hold but remains indicative of issues that the state must, and will, address.
Given that, analyzing Judge Moukawsher’s decision will help all stakeholders in the public education discussion prepare for likely eventualities.
“The municipalities we represent will be affected by the decision ultimately, whether the Connecticut Supreme Court upholds it or the issues affecting public education are addressed in another way,” said Cramer & Anderson Attorney Abigail Miranda.
Attorney Miranda attended the Sept. 7 reading of the decision with Cramer & Anderson Partner Kent Mancini, Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton and the city’s Corporation Counsel Laszlo Pinter. The City of Danbury, which was a focus in the case, saw its education officials called to testify.
Judge Moukawsher opened his reading of the decision with a quote by Abigail Adams, “Learning is not attained by chance … ,” and cited the power and responsibility of the State to formulate fiscal allocations for education in competition with its many other financial obligations.
In his decision, Judge Moukawsher attacked as unreasonable the current system of how students transition from elementary to secondary schools, and labeled teacher evaluations and compensation as “impermissibly disconnected from student learning.” Special education spending, meanwhile, was deemed “irrational.”
Ultimately, the judge gave the State just 180 days in which to propose a new formula—an order put on hold by the State’s appeal.
The State of Connecticut was previously ordered to implement a formulaic approach to funding education from municipality to municipality in 1979. This resulted in the creation of the Guaranteed Tax Base Grant, which morphed into the Education Cost Sharing Formula (or ECS) in 1988.
The ECS remained in place for almost a quarter-century, with some minor tweaks, until 2013-14 when it was abandoned. After that came the “black box” era, with municipalities having virtually no idea what funding they will receive from the legislature from year-to-year. This creates obvious struggles in the school systems, with Boards of Education unsure if funding for certain programs, staff, and resources will be sustainable as the years go by.
While the CCJEF v. Rell case was initiated in 2005, when the ECS formula was still in place, it was decided based on the circumstances in-place at the time of trial in 2016, the “black box” era.
Judge Moukawsher recognized that returning to the ECS formula would not resolve fundamental problems with the Connecticut education funding system. He acknowledged that the very foundation of the ECS formula, the base aid per pupil figure, is arbitrary and outdated at best. Moreover, the formula was never fully funded.
In his decision, the judge ordered the State, within a 180-day period, to propose a formula for education funding allocation that is “rationally, substantially, and verifiably connected to creating educational opportunities for children.”
Though changes will not now happen quickly, Connecticut residents and taxpayers shouldn’t expect the possible ramifications of the ongoing case to change.
Those with children may expect changes in curriculum at some point down the road, with schools in wealthy communities perhaps eliminating “extras,” and those in poorer communities seeing long-awaited essentials finally added.
Property owners shouldn’t be surprised to see changes in municipal property tax or mill rates whenever the new direction is finalized and implemented.
As Judge Moukawsher acknowledged, the majority of funds raised by property taxes are used to fund education. As a result, those in wealthy communities may see increases in municipal tax as a response to state funds likely being reallocated out of their school systems.
The problems with the funding of public education in Connecticut, and the possible remedies, are among the most pressing issues faced by the State. We will keep you posted on how things progress with the appeal and beyond.
Cramer & Anderson’s team of attorneys who assist municipalities with the complexities of dealing with the state and federal governments also includes Daniel E. Casagrande, D. Randall DiBella, Kent Mancini, Kenneth E. Taylor, and John D. Tower.