Judge's ruling: State education funding is broken

A state judge’s brutal indictment of Connecticut’s educational failures and his call for sweeping reforms has roused strong reactions among local officials — including Ridgefield School Superintendent Karen Baldwin’s assessment that his ruling could undermine special education for severely disabled children in a manner she described as “abhorrent.”

The ruling which State Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher read aloud from the bench for more than two hours Wednesday, Sept. 7, said Connecticut is failing to meet the state constitution’s “promises to give children a fair opportunity for an elementary and secondary school education.”

State Senator Toni Boucher saw the ruling as, at least in part, a call to reduce what she sees as excessive political manipulation of school funding issues in Hartford.

Ridgefield Superintendent Baldwin did not dispute the overall premise of the judge’s ruling, but she strongly objected to some of its specifics.

“As the evidence made clear, the State of Connecticut fails to provide most of its cities and towns with adequate school funding. While the decision is an important milestone on the school funding issue, there are several far-reaching and ill-conceived points included in the decision related to special education programming and services, teacher evaluation, and standardized testing,” Baldwin told The Press.

“Specifically, it appears that the Judge in his ruling advocates for the State to develop State graduation exit exams. In addition, there is an apparent ruling that teacher evaluation be revamped so that teacher compensation is based on the results of the educator evaluation,” she said.

“Lastly, an apparent ruling that would require the state not to program for children whose special needs are so severe that education cannot materially influence the quality of their lives. This I must say, is abhorrent and takes the state backwards 50-plus years.”

Most of the judge’s ruling  — a 90-page decision that runs to 254 pages with all its backing material — focuses on discrepancies in spending between rich and poor municipalities, and the consequent inequalities and problems faced by the poorer districts. But he also casts a skeptical eye on special education. Among the questions he raises is whether schools and school budgets are being asked to do too much for children with severe multiple disabilities.

This appears to be at the heart of what so troubles Superintendent Baldwin.

“Neither federal law nor educational logic says that schools have to spend fruitlessly on some at the expense of others in need,” Judge Moukawsher writes. “Medical services including physical and occupational therapy may help some multiply-disabled children and may be an important social service … But when they have no substantial connection to education no one says they have to be paid for out of education budgets…”

Questions that are the focus of much special education litigation and case law spring from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the parameters of what it requires schools to do. The judge referred to testimony by Daniel J. Reschly, professor of educational psychology at Vanderbilt, who was the special education expert testifying for the state — not the plaintiffs — at the trial.

Looking back at precedent-setting IDEA rulings, the judge said “the act covers all disabled children, and it requires them to be given an education appropriate for their circumstances. But that ignores the real judgment call that Reschly says schools run away from. The call is not about whether certain profoundly disabled children are entitled to a ‘free appropriate public education.’ It is about whether schools can decide in an education plan for a covered child that the child has a minimal or no chance for education, and therefore the school should not make expensive, extensive, and ultimately pro-forma efforts.

“For a child in a coma, the judgment call may be painful, but it is simple: the appropriate education service for a child in a coma is likely little more than evaluating the child’s condition and following the proper procedure to recognize that no educational service is appropriate because the child cannot benefit from it.”

The judge noted testimony that individual education plans for severely disabled students “can cost school districts amounts approaching and exceeding $200,000 a year per child” in some cases.

“Yet school officials never consider the possibility that the education appropriate for some students may be extremely limited because they are too profoundly disabled to get any benefit from an elementary or secondary school education,” the judge wrote. “Reschly struggled to say why hundreds of thousands of dollars might be spent on someone profoundly disabled without even considering whether it’s a good idea while for other disabled children the schools have to shape programs to fit their prospects and circumstances.”

The judge’s decision in the suit — Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Educational Funding versus (former governor) Jodi Rell — focuses intently on the failure of Connecticut’s educational system, and the financing system that supports it.

Judge Moukawsher is blunt about the problems.

“...In struggling cities the neediest are leaving schools with diplomas but without the education we promise them,” he wrote. “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 is also adrift.

“Against the harsh realities of our poorest communities, it is inconceivable that we adopted a constitutional guarantee blind to the effort required to deliver adequate public schools across a broad spectrum of need…”

Connecticut schools are paid for largely by local property taxes levied by towns and cities, with some assistance in the form of state and federal aid. The judge agrees with the plaintiffs that this system is not working.

“...Connecticut municipalities get 70% of their revenue from property taxes and spend most of that revenue on schools, so a property poor town is a town that has less for its schools. While Bridgeport has almost eight times as many people, the taxable property in the nearby town of New Canaan is worth over $1 billion more than all the taxable property in crowded Bridgeport. The taxable property in nearby Greenwich is worth more than four times that in Bridgeport though it has only half the population…”

The discrepancies between rich and poor towns show up in student performance, as measured on tests — such as the CAPT test given to high school students.

“Under CAPT in the last few years the children of Darien, New Canaan, Ridgefield, Weston, Westport and Wilton scored as ‘advanced’ in math and approached the same status in reading. Meanwhile, one out of three children in Bridgeport, Windham, New Britain, and similar communities didn’t even reach the most basic levels in math and only did modestly better at reading,” the judge wrote.

“Not reaching the most basic levels means they don’t have even limited ability to read and respond to grade level material. There can be no serious talk of these children having reached the goals set for them. Only a tiny number of them did. In Bridgeport, New Britain and similar communities, only 10-15% made it that high. Therefore 85-90% of them missed their goals…”

The judge sees it as the state’s duty to address these inequities.

“To keep its promise of adequate schools for all children, the state must rally more forcefully around troubled schools. It can’t possibly help them while standing on the sidelines,” he said.

“No one suggests that teaching in Connecticut is broadly incompetent. The claim is that opportunities for good teaching are not being rationally marshaled in favor of needy kids.”

The judge does, however, recognize that the state has been trying — however inadequately — to address the academic problems and underlying social challenges by funneling more resources to poor districts.

“State and federal programs also beef up needy school districts by providing student breakfast, lunch, and many times food to take home. Schools in some districts feed students even in summer. After-school programs instruct and care for kids. Parents are invited to school to share in learning. Homeless children are sought out and their needs tended…

“All of this extra spending benefits poor districts but not wealthier districts. It is on top of basic education aid that has a history of strongly favoring poor districts over wealthier ones. This heavy tilt in state education aid in favor of the state’s poorer communities shows the state is devoting to needy schools a great deal more in resources…”

Given this history, the judge is reluctant to order the state to spend more money.

“This tilt is also fatal to the plaintiffs’ equal protection claim as a basis for an order to increase the total amount the state spends on education,” he writes.

Recognizing the many priorities and difficulties the state faces in its budgeting decisions, Judge Moukawsher insists the fairness issue is still one the state must do better on — though it is not for the court to dictate the solution.

“...while only the legislature can decide precisely how much money to spend on public schools, the system cannot work unless the state sticks to an honest formula that delivers state aid according to local need,” he said.

“...The legislature uses no microscope. It faces the full tidal wave of public demand, it considers every public matter and weighs it against the interests that compete with it for funding...

“What does the court say to prisoners without beds or decent lawyers? To challenges filed on behalf of the mentally ill? Any ruling taking an overly broad view of judicial discretion over education spending would squeeze the money being spent on those cases and what might be spent on them...

“We can’t possibly judge the adequacy of the state’s work unless that work and its connection to teaching children are verifiable,” he said. “We should be able to study budget formulas to see if they reasonably account for the differing needs of districts. Standards should be clear enough so we can tell if they reasonably connect what they do with what they are supposed to do...”

State Sen. Boucher — a Wiltonian whose 26th District includes Ridgefield, Redding, Bethel, New Canaan, Weston, Westport and Wilton — said the judge’s ruling raised real concerns about state education funding, a topic she has long gone to battle on.

“I was very concerned about it,” Boucher said of the ruling handed down Wednesday.

Boucher, a Republican and former Wilton school board member, sent out a press release Thursday calling for “fair play” in education finances — suggesting the legislature’s Democrats have a habit of dickering with the “education cost sharing” or “ECS” formula that was designed to address inequities.  

“As a former board of education chair, member of the state board of education, and in my current role as ranking member of the legislature’s Education Committee, I have a long history with the state education funding formula,” she said.

“The ECS formula was first conceived to fund failing school systems with the greatest number of disadvantaged students at a higher level than less distressed school districts.

“Since then, the formula has become politicized to such an extent that it hardly resembles its original form and function. Presently, the formula rewards districts with the most political clout.

“The flawed and manipulated funding formula that underlies this financial reality must be directly and honestly addressed. The legislature should convene a bipartisan committee in the next session to fix this problem once and for all.”

In a phone interview, Boucher reiterated her assertion that “the majority party” has played politics with the school aid over the years.

As the state senator representing some of the state’s richest towns with some of its best school districts, Boucher’s view is a little different from that of Judge Moukawsher.

“Ridgefield and Wilton get like a penny on every dollar they send up to Hartford, and the cities like Bridgeport and New Haven get $1.50,” she said.

But she said the added state funds haven’t solved the educational issues.

“Those cities were not doing better academically,” she said. “They were getting a lot more money, and the communities like Ridgefield were becoming self-funding on education, meaning their local property taxes paid for almost all of it.”

Over the years, the legislature has played games with the ECS formula, she said, generally giving the wealthier town less and less — with, perhaps, some politically connected exceptions.

“This formula, the promise was they would not get less for special ed and they would not get less for transportation,” she said, and “school construction” funds from the state were also understood to be protected.

But the legislature couldn’t keep its hands off.

“They jerry-rigged the formula. They added more and more variables to the formula,” she said.

“So, the promise was really broken — again, this was a majority party driven budget,” Boucher said.

“What’s happened is city schools are getting more funding, but they continue to under-perform, and have a large achievement gap. And, in towns like Ridgefield, property taxpayers are being burdened more and more,” she said.

“Now you have school systems like Ridgefield, the taxpayers are self-funding: in addition to paying income taxes to support schools in other districts, then they have to reach into the property taxes on their homes and the commercial property to fund their schools, police, fire.

“Matters were made much much worse this year,” Boucher added, “when the governor decided he was going to under-fund between 28 and 30 school districts — that tended to be the ones with more affluent residents — by 50% of what they typically get. And they did that after the towns had already passed their budgets.

The way to address the issues is with a non-partisan approach that is less political, Boucher said.

“I think they should convene a bipartisan committee of the education and appropriations committees, governor’s office, and make the kind of changes in the formula that are honest and transparent and fair and not allowed to be manipulated — cannot be changed by the whim of the governor’s office or the legislative majority to benefit a particular district for re-election purposes,” she said.

In his decision, Moukawsher ordered the state to come up with plans to address a variety of topics, and gave it 180 days to do so.

“The state,” he said, “will propose changes consistent with this opinion on the following subjects:

  • “The relationship between the state and local government in education.

  • “An education aid formula;

  • “A definition of elementary and secondary education;

  • “Standards for hiring, firing, evaluating and paying education professionals;

  • “Funding, identification, and educational services standards for special education.

  • “Once the state submits its proposed remedies, the plaintiffs will have 60 days to comment on them and propose alternatives. A hearing will then be scheduled.

  • “All proposals will include a timetable and any other proposed variables related to carrying them out along with a thorough justification…”

The judge acknowledged that a difficult road lies ahead.

“This case has been fought over for more than 11 years,” he said. “It started in Superior Court in 2005 and the Supreme Court sent it here for trial nearly seven years ago…

“The court knows what its ruling means for many deeply ingrained practices, but it also has a marrow-deep understanding that if they are to succeed where they are most strained schools have to be about teaching children and nothing else. If they are to succeed rather than be overwhelmed by demands for alternative schools, public schools must keep their promise,” he said. “So change must come. The state has to accept that the schools are its blessing and its burden, and if it cannot be wise, it must at least be sensible. The implications are plain:

  • “The state’s responsibility for education is direct and non-delegable: it must assume unconditional authority to intervene in troubled school districts.

  • “The court can’t dictate the amount of education spending, but spending including school construction spending, must follow a formula influenced only by school needs and good practices.

  • “The state must define elementary and secondary education objectively, ending abuses that in some places have nearly destroyed the meaning of high school graduation and have left children rising from elementary school to high school without knowing how to read, write, and do math well enough to move up.

  • “The state must link the terms of educators’ jobs with things known to promote better schools: it cannot churn out uselessly perfect teacher evaluations nor can teacher pay consider solely what degrees teachers have and how long they have been on the job.

  • “The state must end arbitrary spending on special education that has delivered too little help to some and educationally useless services to others; it must set sensible rules for schools to follow in identifying and helping disabled children.”

The matter of whether the state will appeal the decision appears to be open.

“Appeal? That a good question,” Boucher said. “I’m not sure. That’s up to the administration to do that, not the legislature. That’s up to the attorney general, George Jepsen, and the governor’s office — all from the same political party.”

Ridgefield Board of Education Chairwoman Frances Walton didn’t think the local board needed to react the ruling at this point, noting that the state is supposed to respond to the ruling within six months, and may well appeal.

“I think we need to see how the Connecticut State Department of Education responds to this ruling,” Walton said. “It will not have an immediate impact on the RPS (Ridgefield Public Schools) and until the CSDE (Connecticut State Department of Education) accepts and addresses the court decision, it would be fruitless to speculate. They may appeal the current decision.”