Funding of education in state could change

Hartford - The state Supreme Court ruled Monday that Connecticut must support a public education system that prepares all students for jobs or higher education, reversing an earlier Superior Court ruling that said the state was responsible only for equitable funding of education.

Supporters and observers called the 4-3 ruling a "landmark decision" that could change the current arrangement in which local school districts depend primarily on municipal property taxes.

The Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding argued, first in Waterbury Superior Court and then in the Supreme Court appeal, that widely differing resources in different towns deprive some students of their constitutional right to an adequate education. The majority of the seven justices agreed.

State Sen. Thomas P. Gaffey, D-Meriden, co-chairman of the General Assembly Education Committee, who presided at at a press conference Monday at the Capitol, suggested the state income tax is a more equitable way to fund education than relying on local property taxes.

Coalition Project Director Dianne Kaplan deVries said, however, that the coalition never intended to seek 100 percent state funding of education.

"The goal is to lessen the reliance on property taxes by shifting it more to the state," deVries said at the press conference. "This is a very historic, exciting afternoon. It's a huge win for Connecticut schoolchildren."

The coalition represented 15 plaintiff Connecticut schoolchildren - including one from New London who has since moved out of state - and dozens of municipalities and agencies such as the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education and the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities. New London, Norwich, Old Saybrook and Plainfield are members of the coalition.

Current Montville Superintendent Pamela Aubin was Norwich superintendent when coalition members sought possible plaintiffs in Norwich. While no parents joined as individuals, the school district did join the coalition and contributed some of its own data on the district's population shifts and student achievement.

Aubin, who did not attend the press conference, said arguments about increasing the state's share of education funding are easier to grasp than the more complicated question of defining adequacy.

"How do you define adequate?" Aubin said. "Equity gets into funding, but adequacy gets into needs, individual needs of students. It's open to greater interpretation."

Parent Merrill Gay of New Britain agreed to join the lawsuit 10 years ago on behalf of his daughter, then in second grade. She now is preparing to graduate from high school. But Gay said one-third of the students from her kindergarten class won't be joining her.

"They're not ready," Gay said. "That's what's going on in New Britain."

The lawsuit claimed Connecticut is failing to prepare students for graduation, college and careers. The coalition relied on students from Yale Law School, who researched education funding issues and even argued the case before the Supreme Court. DeVries said the pro bono work by Yale enabled the case to go forward. In 2003, the coalition was forced to drop a case against the state for lack of funding.

The Supreme Court ruling sends the case back to Waterbury Superior Court, where it could go to trial. But coalition officials said they hope state officials will negotiate a settlement on education adequacy standards and increased funding to cities and towns for education, said Lindsey Luebchow, co-director of the Yale Law School Education Advocacy Clinic.

Luebchow said she would seek to schedule the case soon in Waterbury court, but said it could take another two years before it reached trial.

The coalition's research claims the state currently is underfunding education by $1 billion to $2 billion annually.

State Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said the Supreme Court's lack of a clear majority in the ruling would leave it up to the legislature and the governor to decide how to measure "minimally adequate" education.

"My office will carefully review this split decision and its impact on state education funding laws," Blumenthal said in a statement. "Despite the court's decision, I am pleased that the ultimate effect is to defer to the elected branches of government in balancing educational costs with the state's other critical needs."

Gov. M. Jodi Rell said that while the ruling sends the case back to Waterbury Court, she remains committed to "funding the state's Education Cost Sharing formula at current levels - nearly $1.9 billion each year to support our public schools."

Tom Murphy, spokesman for the state Department of Education, said Monday's ruling made many references to past landmark cases challenging the state's education funding, including Horton v. Meskill and Scheff v. O'Neill, that led to creation of the Education Cost Sharing grant system. That complicated formula distributes aid to towns based on wealth and other factors.

Murphy said his agency already has proposed reforms to change the structure of high school that he believes would address the court's adequacy issue. The changes would include more rigorous courses, student support services and mandating that each student have a personalized "success plan" developed in middle school for high school and beyond.

Murphy said the Department of Education would work with the state legislature on the proposed high school reforms, calling them "a step toward meeting" the new standard set by the Supreme Court.

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