Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Connecticut Supreme Court Applies Low Adequacy Standard, Drawing Charge That It Is "Heartless"

School funding litigation in Connecticut caught the nation's attention in late 2016 when a trial judge there issued and lengthy and scathing appraisal of the state's school funding practices.  The court found that many of the state's education policies were simply irrational. For instance, the court wrote: "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 rich schools robbing millions of dollars from poor schools. ... Instead of the state honoring its promise of adequate schools, [it] has left rich school districts to flourish and poor school districts to flounder ... [and] the system cannot work unless the state sticks to an honest formula that delivers funding according to local need."  The judge gave the state 180 days to come up with a remedy.

Interestingly, however, the trial court applied a relatively low threshold of educational adequacy.  The case has now made it to the state supreme court, which affirmed that aspect of the case.  In short, plaintiffs won on certain counts, but the courts, in applying a low adequacy standard, have ignored other crucial educational failures.  Wendy Lecker, Education Law Center, offered this critique of the recent decision in the Stamford Advocate.

Heartless is the best way to describe the Connecticut Supreme Court’s 4-3 decision in the state’s long-running school funding case, CCJEF v. Rell.

The court’s majority acknowledged that at the 2016 trial, the plaintiffs proved that Connecticut’s poorest districts suffered severe deprivations in educational resources, especially those resources designed to help our neediest children. The court conceded that these districts lack reading interventionists, bilingual services, guidance counselors, social workers, psychologists, preschool and more.

 The court even admitted that “the lack of such support services makes it extremely difficult for many students in the state’s neediest school districts to take advantage of the state’s educational offerings.”
Yet Connecticut’s highest court ruled that these shocking deprivations do not amount to a constitutional violation. Rather, it ruled that the only things the state must provide under our constitution are: the bare minimum of teachers, facilities, curricula and instrumentalities of learning — such as books, computers and desks.

Our Supreme Court admitted that these four resources are inadequate to enable many of Connecticut’s children, our neediest, to access educational opportunities. Thus, in deciding that only these meager resources need be provided, the court essentially ruled that the state bears no constitutional responsibility to these children — only to those who do not need such support.

This decision represents a monumental step backward. Courts across the United States routinely recognize that since out-of-school factors can hinder some children’s ability to access educational opportunities, it is the state’s responsibility to provide support that mitigates those factors to guarantee the same educational opportunities to these children that others enjoy.

Almost 30 years, ago, the New Jersey Supreme Court understood that a state’s duty to guarantee a constitutionally adequate education addresses not only “reading, writing, and arithmetic” but also “the environment that shapes these students' lives and determines their educational needs.” Similarly, courts in Massachusetts, Wyoming, Kansas, Washington, New York, South Carolina, Tennessee and elsewhere mandate that, as part of the state’s obligation to ensure adequate educational opportunities to all children, it must provide additional services to at-risk children, such as those living in poverty, English Language Learners and students with disabilities.

Social workers, guidance counselors, psychologists, tutoring, bilingual education, special education programs and other supports have long been common features of every school system. To pretend that these supports are not essential components of education is to deny reality.

The court’s decision was not unanimous. Justice Richard Palmer wrote a strongly worded dissent, which is notable not only for its content. It is also striking because it was Justice Palmer’s opinion in CCJEF the last time it was before the Supreme Court, in 2010, that established the standard for determining what kind of education Connecticut owes its children.

In issuing its decision last week, the majority claimed it was merely applying Justice Palmer’s 2010 standard. However, Justice Palmer pointedly disagreed.

“Residents of our poorest communities, even those hungry to learn, may have to overcome a host of obstacles before they are able to attend to fractions and Fitzgerald,” Justice Palmer wrote. He concluded that the state cannot shirk its responsibility to attend to those obstacles.

Justice Palmer maintained that his 2010 decision mandated that the state not only provide teachers, facilities, curricula and instrumentalities, but that it also take into consideration the particular needs of a local school district, including the needs of children living in poverty, children learning English and children with disabilities.

Justice Palmer noted that the majority acknowledged that had the state provided only college level textbooks to elementary school students — well above a level they could comprehend — that would have been a violation of these children’s constitutional rights. He queried why the constitution is “not also offended if, for example, a school fails to provide instruction or instructional materials that are comprehensible to a substantial subpopulation of students whose primary language is not English?”

Connecticut has almost 200,000 students who are economically disadvantaged, more than 36,000 English Language Learners and over 77,000 students with disabilities. Many need additional support to access their opportunity to an education.

As Justice Palmer declared that “(i)t is not enough to seek success in some places, for some children ... the educational system must be reasonably designed to achieve results in every district and neighborhood. Our state constitution simply will not allow us to leave our neediest children behind.”

The court’s majority was willing to leave hundreds of thousands of Connecticut’s children behind. Will we allow Connecticut’s political leaders to do the same?



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Thanks for posting. Just to be clear, this awful decision by the Connecticut Supreme Court affirmed the lower court's (awful) ruling on adequacy. The Court rejected other aspects of the lower court ruling (the lower court's improper foray into education policy matters). But the Supreme Court's ruling at issue in my column affirmed the trial court.

Posted by: Wendy Lecker | Jan 30, 2018 10:24:03 AM

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