Judge correctly identified need for systemic public education overhaul

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Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher.

The ink isn’t yet dry on Judge Thomas Moukawsher’s ruling in CCJEF v. Rell — originally brought in 2005 — and Connecticut must already prepare to defend its educational practices in another court –this time federal.

While CCJEF contemplated the state’s constitutional obligation to adequately and rationally fund public education, Martinez v. Malloy challenges the state’s policies on magnets, charters, and open enrollment — asserting that the state is preventing students from accessing minimally acceptable public school seats. It bears remembering that these are not the first major cases to identify an unfair system of public education that is directly responsible for gaps in achievement in our state.

In 1977, the Connecticut Supreme Court found that education is a fundamental right in Connecticut and that the school funding system was unconstitutional because it depended primarily on local property taxes (Horton v. Meskill). In 1996, the Supreme Court determined that racial isolation in Hartford was depriving students of equal educational opportunities (Sheff v. O’Neill), ultimately leading the state to build more magnet schools in Hartford.

These decades of trials, for all of their legal distinctions, ultimately come down to the same idea: Although Connecticut has a constitutional obligation to educate its students, it’s doing a bad job for many of them.

The current system doesn’t cut it. Judge Moukawsher writes in his CCJEF decision: “Many of our most important [education] policies are so befuddled or misdirected as to be irrational. They lack real and visible links to things known to meet children’s needs.” And while Connecticut is neglecting its duty to our kids, it’s also siphoning taxpayer dollars into defending the indefensible and postponing the inevitable.

Educational inequity is a fact in our state that will eventually need to be addressed. Judge Moukawsher emphatically reminds state leaders that they have a “non-delegable” duty to provide an adequate public education to all Connecticut children, and the state cannot abdicate its responsibilities by adopting policies (like local control) that impede its ability to get the job done.

However, the systemic problems in our education model are so pervasive and entangled that –asked only to address the constitutionality of our spending– Moukawsher has found himself requiring the state to produce a plan that also addresses standards, human resources, special education, and the relationship between state and local government.

I can’t help but notice that he’s not the only third party to have taken a look at Connecticut’s education system from the outside and easily identified inter-related systemic failures as the cause of Connecticut’s unenviable inequities.

The Connecticut Commission for Educational Achievement (CCEA), for instance, was formed by then-Governor Jodi Rell and tasked with developing a plan to address Connecticut’s persistent and nation-leading gaps in academic performance. Like Judge Moukawsher, the CCEA found the state’s education polices to be ineffective, and realized that the system could only be reformed holistically.

Questions of funding, accountability, human resources, and assistance to needy subgroups are all too intertwined to be addressed in an ad hoc fashion. That’s why they produced a report in 2009 that was broad enough in scope to address the myriad problems in Connecticut’s education system, and formed the Connecticut Council for Education Reform (CCER) to advocate for those changes in an integrated fashion.

CCER adopted the CCEA’s recommendations in their entirety, embracing the following principles:

  • Demand accountability at all levels, and develop a hierarchical structure that requires it.
  • Raise the bar for students, and provide support so they can meet those expectations.
  • Remove bureaucratic barriers to attracting talent, and then develop, support, and retain high-quality talent.
  • Establish an effective, transparent, and equitable model for funding public education.
  • Increase authority, accountability, and resources in the lowest-performing schools.

There’s a lot of alignment with Moukawsher’s expectations for our state. These comprehensive changes will likely require us to rethink the whole system. But surely undertaking that challenge is better than spending precious state funds on defending future lawsuits, or facing the economic and moral implications of producing further generations of graduates who are unprepared to succeed in life.

The state has an important choice to make.

Its leaders could take the short-cut for the short-term: appeal Moukawsher’s decision and keep kicking the can down the road. This would be the simplest route for our legislature, but it would condemn thousands of our children to another decade of a system that is an irrational, inequitable, unfair failure.

Alternatively, the State of Connecticut could do the right thing.

Jeffrey Villar is the Executive Director of the Connecticut Council for Education Reform (CCER), a nonprofit organization that seeks to narrow Connecticut’s widest-in-the-nation achievement gap. To learn more about CCER, visit ctedreform.org.

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