Supreme Court got it right in leaving education policy to legislature

Perhaps we missed it, but in all the coverage of the Connecticut Supreme Court’s controversial ruling Wednesday that the state is meeting state constitutional requirements when it comes to public education, we did not find the constitutional language quoted.

So here it is: “There shall always be free public elementary and secondary schools in the state. The General Assembly shall implement this principle by appropriate legislation.”

That is all.

For 13 years those 23 words have been the subject of one of the longest litigations in state history. It began in 2005 when a group of cities, struggling small towns, labor groups and educational activists, calling themselves the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding, filed a lawsuit against then Gov. M. Jodi Rell. They contended state government was not adhering to its constitutional mandate.

More precisely, the plaintiffs maintained large class-room sizes, a lack of materials and dismal student performance in many poorer communities proved the legislature was falling short and had to be forced, by court order, to direct adequate resources to the challenge.

Dismissed by a lower court in 2007, then revived by the Supreme Court in 2010 and sent back to the Superior Court, the case resulted in a trial that stretched more than six months, with 50 witnesses and 826 exhibits. The result in September 2016 was one of the most extraordinary rulings in state judicial history and, in our continued opinion, a case of gross judicial overreach.

In his 90-page decision (254 including addendums) Judge Thomas Moukawsher ruled that Connecticut expended sufficient resources to exceed the minimal adequacy standards the Supreme Court had set for him when it sent the case back for a trial. Not surprising since, at $18,377 per pupil, Connecticut spends more on education than all but two others states, Alaska and New York.

But, continued Moukawsher, that’s not enough. To be constitutional, he concluded, the funding provided by the state “must at least be rational, sustainable, and verifiable.” And it isn’t, he concluded. Wealthy towns get more money than needed while poorer communities go begging.

To abide by those 23 words, the legislature not only had to fix how it funds education, it had to make changes in special education, create better standards for promotion and graduation, tie teacher evaluations and compensation to student performance and be smarter about school construction, Moukawsher ruled.

The legislature had to correct these shortcomings and bring the plan back to him for his approval, he ordered, essentially installing himself as education czar.

In its 4-3 ruling, the Supreme Court found, quite correctly, that Moukawsher far exceeded his judicial authority.

“Not only did the trial court fail to defer to the legislature, it also usurped the legislative responsibility to determine how additional funding, beyond the constitutionally required minimum, should be allocated and how to craft educational policies that, in its view, best balance the wide variety of interests at issue. This action was in clear violation of separation of powers principles,” Chief Justice Chase T. Rogers wrote for the majority.

Moukawsher, “upon finding that the schools were minimally adequate … should have concluded that the state’s educational system was constitutional,” the majority ruled.

“It is not the function of the courts … to create educational policy or attempt by judicial fiat to eliminate all of the societal deficiencies that continue to frustrate the state’s educational efforts,” wrote Rogers.

The chief justice is right. It is not the role of the courts to fix this. It is the job of the people’s elected representatives.

Incredibly, after 13 years, three of the justices wanted to return the matter to the lower courts for yet more litigation.

In its bipartisan budget passed last year, the General Assembly changed the formulas for providing state aid to schools, committing to a shift in funding over the coming decade from affluent communities to impoverished ones.

The legislature should not use this decision as an excuse to shirk its responsibility to direct educational resources to where there is the greatest need. The challenge of closing the gap between student performance in the state’s urban centers and its poor communities, as compared to the more prosperous suburbs, remains.

If their representatives retreat from this challenge, voters should hold them accountable. That is how representative democracy works.

The editorial board is composed of the publisher and four journalists of varied editing and reporting backgrounds. The board's discussions and information gained from its meetings with political, civic, and business leaders drive the institutional voice of The Day, as expressed in its editorials. The editorial department operates separately from the newsroom.

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