Connecticut AG challenges ruling that state's education is unequal and unconstitutional

Attorney General George Jepsen says he'll appeal the state Supreme Court decision, which found Connecticut's education funding system unconstitutional.

Cliff Owen/AP/File
Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen speaks during a news conference at the Justice Department in Washington, Wednesday, April 11, 2012.

On Sept. 7, a Connecticut judge declared the state’s education funding system unconstitutional, citing considerable achievement gaps between rich and poor students as evidence that the state was failing its constitutional responsibility to provide an adequate public education. Judge Thomas Moukawsher ordered an overhaul of everything from graduation standards to how teachers are hired and evaluated, calling the latter process "little more than cotton candy in a rainstorm." He gave the state 180 days to comply.

On Thursday, as expected, Connecticut’s attorney general announced that he would seek to appeal the ruling in the Connecticut Supreme Court. State education policy, Attorney General George Jepsen argued, shouldn’t be determined by a lone judge.

“This decision would wrest educational policy from the representative branches of state government, limit public education for some students with special needs, create additional municipal mandates concerning graduation and other standards, and alter the basic terms of educators' employment – and entrust all of those matters to the discretion of a single, unelected judge,” Mr. Jepsen said in a statement.

Despite being one of the richest states in the country, Connecticut is marred by inequality. Income distribution is heavily skewed between wealthy, mostly-white suburbs and poorer cities – such as Bridgeport and East Hartford – which are home to black and Latino majorities.

State schools reflect that inequity. Connecticut has one of the largest achievement gaps between rich and poor students, as The Christian Science Monitor’s Simon Montlake reported last week. On recent standardized tests, for example, more than 70 percent of third-graders in the state's wealthiest towns met grade-level standards in reading. In the poorest municipalities, nearly 70 percent of third-graders fell short of that goal.

“The odds are really stacked against you if you grow up in a poor district,” Sean Reardon, an education professor at Stanford University who studies poverty and inequality, told the Monitor.

That inequality is why, in 2005, the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding sued the state. The 11-year-old lawsuit came to a close last week when Superior Court Judge Moukawsher ruled in favor of the nonprofit group, which includes school boards, parents, and students across several districts.

“Beyond a reasonable doubt, Connecticut is defaulting on its constitutional duty to provide adequate public school opportunities because it has no rational, substantial and verifiable plan to distribute money for education aid and school construction,” Moukawsher said in his ruling. "Many of [Connecticut's] most important policies are so befuddled or misdirected as to be irrational. They lack real and visible links to things known to meet children's needs."

But even if Moukawsher’s order is stalled by a Supreme Court appeal, the 90-page ruling, which he read from the bench, already has brought attention to longstanding issues surrounding education inequality – not just in Connecticut, but in the country at large.

“[T]he ruling identified profound educational challenges that remain and must continue to receive serious and sustained attention – and action – at every level of government,” wrote Jepsen, a Democrat, according to the Hartford Courant. “Nothing about this appeal prevents policymakers from immediately addressing those challenges, and I urge them to do so without delay.”

On Thursday, Gov. Dannel Malloy acknowledged – but did not openly endorse – Jepsen’s appeal. Instead, he urged legislators to focus on broad “systemic” problems in state education policy.

“We know that we do not need to wait for the legal outcome to start improving outcomes for our students,” Governor Malloy said. “We hope that this moment marks the start, rather than the stalling, of a statewide dialogue around finding a better way to fund our schools.”

This report includes material from Reuters.

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