Education justice is in the hands of the General Assembly

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PATRICK RAYCRAFT | praycraft@courant.com

Opening statements by both the plaintiffs and the defendants in the case of the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding, Inc., et al. v. M. Jodi Rell et al., before the state Supreme Court.

The Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education funding [CCJEF] is the largest and most diverse education reform coalition ever established in our state.  Since 2005, CCJEF has been fighting for adequate and equitable educational opportunities for all of our nearly 540,000 K-12 public school students.  CCJEF has championed this goal before all three branches of state government, most notably before the Judicial Branch in the historic CCJEF v. Rell state constitutional education adequacy and equity case.

In January, a deeply divided Connecticut Supreme Court ruled 4-3 that the State was meeting its state constitutional responsibility to provide a “minimally adequate” and equitable educational opportunity to our public school students.  While acknowledging that tens of thousands of at-risk students are not receiving the educational assistance they need to succeed, the court majority decided that the individualized educational needs of these students are constitutionally irrelevant.  After CCJEF’s 12-year legal battle, the majority decided the courts were powerless to intervene and passed the buck back to the General Assembly.

In the face of such callous judicial indifference to the plight of thousands of struggling poor, minority, non-English speaking and other high-need students, CCJEF looks to the General Assembly for justice.

Specifically, CCJEF asks the Education Committee and the General Assembly to:

  1. Authorize and fund an Education Adequacy Cost Study under the auspices of a resourced, staffed and fully-rostered Connecticut Achievement and Resource Equity in Schools [CARES] Commission [PA 17-2, June, Sec.71]; and
  2. Push back the reporting deadline of the CARES Commission from April 1, 2018 to April 1, 2019 in order to allow the conduct of an Education Adequacy Cost Study and other substantive research, analyses and work to take place.

Education Adequacy Cost Study

For too long Connecticut has developed education funding policy backwards and without hard data.

For too long our state has let budget politics, special interests and last-minute backroom deals determine how much to spend on K-12 public education.  Last year was no exception.

State government time and time again backs into an education funding amount and then corrupts the Education Cost Sharing (ECS) formula and other funding programs to deliver a target spending amount.  This has been the harsh reality since the inception of the ECS grant. Since 2013 we have not really followed an ECS formula.

An Education Adequacy Cost Study is the necessary prerequisite to developing a new, rational and truly constitutional education finance system in Connecticut.

Unlike the arbitrary, politics-driven efforts of the past and present, an Education Adequacy Cost Study would provide hard, real-world data on student needs and what resources are necessary to truly meet our state constitutional responsibility to deliver an adequate and equitable educational opportunity for every K-12 public school student in our state.

Connecticut’s shame is to continue to tolerate some of the most economically and racially segregated school districts in the nation.

Connecticut’s shame is to continue to tolerate one of the largest student  achievement gaps in the nation.

An Education Adequacy Cost Study would ensure that the resource needs of all school districts – successful, struggling, and those in between – as well as the resources needed by regular and at-risk students are identified and quantified. It would then be up to policymakers and stakeholders to put these resource needs in fiscal context, determine a state and local share, and rationally develop an education funding formula and system that is based on actual student needs.

CARES Commission

Section 71 of Public Act 17-2, June, established the Connecticut Achievement and Resource Equity in Schools [CARES] Commission.  The Commission was provided no funding or substantive staff resources. To date only 6 of the 16 members have been appointed.  Appropriately, it has a reporting deadline of April Fool’s Day, 2018.

Will the Education Committee and General Assembly allow the CARES Commission to die by a not-so-benign neglect?

The narrowest of Connecticut Supreme Court majorities [4-3] decided in CCJEF v. Rell to turn a deaf ear to the cries of thousands of public schoolchildren denied an adequate and equitable educational opportunity in our state.

Will the Education Committee and General Assembly also turn a deaf ear to our at-risk students? 

The 1060 findings of fact and other evidence presented by CCJEF and accepted by the court clearly show that the state constitutional rights of many of our public school students have been denied.

While the Connecticut Supreme Court decided that there is no legal imperative to correct this deprivation of educational opportunity, CCJEF believes, and surely the General Assembly agrees, there is a moral imperative to do so.

The Supreme Court of our state has put the futures of tens of thousands of our at-risk students in your hands.

If the CARES Commission is to be something other than the triumph of rhetoric over action, something must be done by the Education Committee and General Assembly now.

Let’s reject the mistakes of the past.

CCJEF urges the General Assembly to (1) push the reporting deadline of the CARES Commission back from April 1, 2018 to April 1, 2019; (2) ensure that legislative leadership makes all the appointments needed to have full commission membership; and (3) provide adequate funding and staff resources to the commission to conduct an Education Adequacy Cost Study, hire consultants, and perform the substantive research and analyses needed to come up with a new, rational, responsive and truly constitutional ECS formula and education finance system for our students, school districts, municipalities and state.

Conclusion

CCJEF urges the General Assembly to support legislation this session to put Connecticut on the path to education justice for all of our K-12 public school students.

Let’s reject our Supreme Court’s idea of “minimally adequate” as the acceptable goal of our K-12 public education system.

The futures of tens of thousands of at-risk students and the future of our state are in the balance.

We should all be united in heeding the moral imperative to ensure adequate and equitable educational opportunities for all our public school students.

What the Education Committee and General Assembly does or does not do this session for education justice will have enormous consequences for our children and our state.

Let’s take the necessary first steps now.

Let us leave no student behind.

Jim Finley is the president and founder of Finley Government Strategies.  He serves as principal consultant to the CT Coalition for Justice in Education Funding.  He was as an expert witness in the CCJEF v. Rell education adequacy and equity case.  Jim spent over 34 years with the CT Conference of Municipalities, including a long-time stint as chief lobbyist and seven years as executive director and CEO.


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