On Wednesday, September 7, 2016, Hartford Superior Court Judge Thomas G. Moukawsher ruled in the case of Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding v. Rell, x07 HHD 14-5037565-S, that the current Connecticut education system violates the state constitution.  This ruling is the latest in a case first filed on December 12, 2005.

In 2007, the trial court dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims and held that the Connecticut Constitution did not contain a right to “suitable educational opportunities.”  In 2010, however, the Connecticut Supreme Court reversed that 2007 decision and remanded the case back to Superior Court for trial, although the Supreme Court was split and there was no majority opinion.

In a plurality opinion authored by Justice Norcott, three justices concluded “that article eighth, § 1, of the Connecticut constitution guarantees Connecticut’s public school students educational standards and resources suitable to participate in democratic institutions, and to prepare them to attain productive employment and otherwise to contribute to the state’s economy, or to progress on to higher education.”  Connecticut Coal. for Justice in Educ. Funding, Inc. v. Rell, 295 Conn. 240, 244–45 (2010) (plurality).  Justice Palmer wrote separately in a concurring opinion and concluded that the Connecticut Constitution guarantees “a minimally adequate, free public education,” but that the plaintiffs could only prevail if they proved that the state’s educational system was “so lacking as to be unreasonable by any fair or objective standard.”  Id. at 321 (Palmer, J., concurring).

As Justice Palmer’s opinion was the fourth and decisive vote to reverse the lower court, Judge Moukawsher determined that the standard by which to review the state’s educational system was whether it was “rational.”

In his 254-page opinion, and which opens with a quote from Abigail Adams, Judge Moukawsher states:

Requiring at least a substantially rational plan for education is a problem in this state because many of our most important policies are so befuddled or misdirected as to be irrational.  For instance, the state spends billions of dollars on schools without any binding principle guaranteeing that education aid goes where it’s needed.  During the recent budget crisis, this left the rich schools robbing millions of dollars from poor schools . . . .  All of this happens because the state is torn between the need for communal and objective standards and apparently irresistible pressure for the idiosyncratic status quo.  Instead of the state honoring its promise of adequate schools, this paralysis has left rich school districts to flourish and poor school districts to flounder.

. . . .

Beyond a reasonable doubt, Connecticut is defaulting on its constitutional duty to provide adequate public school opportunities because it has no rational and verifiable plan to distribute money for education aid and school construction.

Connecticut Coal. for Justice in Educ. Funding, Inc. v. Rell, X07 HHD-CV-14-5037565-S, slip op. at 1-2, 42 (Conn. Super. Ct. Sep. 7, 2016).

Notably, the court’s decision was not limited to issues of the state’s educational funding.  To the contrary, the court’s decision was wide-ranging and took issue with the state’s graduation standards and lack of definitions of and standards for elementary and secondary education; the state’s teacher evaluation system, calling it “dysfunctional” and “inflated,” id. at 62-63; and the state’s special education spending and identification system, questioning whether funding is being appropriately and efficiently allocated and the lack of state guidelines for the identification of students requiring special education services.

The court did not order specific remedies but instead set aggressive deadlines for the state to develop and submit to the court within 180 days reforms consistent with the court’s opinion with respect to:

  • 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.

Id. at 88.

It is unclear what the General Assembly can or will do to address the court’s order within the 180-day timeline.  It is also unclear if and when the state will appeal the court’s decision.

The court’s decision in CCJEF comes days after a group of other Connecticut parents and students filed a suit in the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut challenging the constitutionality of the state’s education system under the Federal Constitution.