Connecticut Court Orders Major Overhaul of Primary and Secondary Education Policies

By John Munich

On September 7, 2016, a Connecticut trial court in Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding, Inc. v. Rell, ordered the state to implement major reforms to its education policies. More than a decade ago, a coalition of cities, local school boards, parents and children filed a lawsuit alleging that Connecticut was violating the state constitution by underfunding the public schools. Although the court rejected the argument that the schools were constitutionally underfunded, it found that policies regarding distribution of education funds, graduation standards, evaluation and compensation of education professionals and special education were constitutionally infirm. The court ordered the state to create a plan to remediate the numerous issues it identified within 180 days.

Prior Connecticut Supreme Court Ruling

In 2010, the Connecticut Supreme Court issued an opinion in the Rell litigation, holding that Article 8, § 1 of the Connecticut constitution entitles public school students to a minimally adequate education, including minimally adequate

(1) Physical facilities

(2) Instruments (such as desks, chairs, pencils, and textbooks)

(3) Teaching of basic curricula (with sufficient personnel trained in the subject areas)

Justice Palmer, who formed the necessary fourth vote for the Court’s decision, agreed with this holding. But he determined that it was the duty of the executive and legislative branches to determine, within reasonable limits, what level of resources or measures are necessary to meet the standard. For that reason, Justice Palmer stated that the plaintiffs would not be able to succeed on their claims unless they could prove that the state’s actions were "so lacking as to be unreasonable by any fair or objective standard."

Trial Court Ruling

Six years after the Supreme Court’s opinion, the lower court held a five-month trial on plaintiffs’ claims. The court issued its opinion a month later.

The court first addressed the core issue of whether Connecticut constitutionally underfunded its schools, finding that there was no violation. According to the court, "Connecticut schools ( . . . ) go far beyond the ( . . . ) minimum" required by the Connecticut Supreme Court’s opinion. Although the court pointed to some anecdotal evidence of deficiencies, it determined that plaintiffs had not proved that there was a statewide failure to provide adequate facilities, instruments or teaching.

Next, the court held that plaintiffs’ equal protection claim also failed. The court explained that an equal protection claim based on spending disparities can only succeed if the claimant can show that the disparities jeopardize the fundamental right to education. Because Connecticut provided more money to impoverished districts than to wealthy ones, the court found that state did not engage in an equal protection violation.

Court Ordered Overhaul

Despite these findings, the court ordered a major overhaul of Connecticut’s education policies. Looking to Justice Palmer’s concurring opinion, the court determined that four different areas of Connecticut education policy were constitutionally deficient because they were not "rationally, substantially, or verifiably connected to creating educational opportunities for children."

The first policy the court took on was Connecticut’s distribution of education funds. Connecticut, like most states, has a statutory formula for distributing state dollars to schools. The court noted that since as recently as 2014, however, the legislature had not followed the funding formula, and instead adopted set dollar amounts to be given to each district. According to the court, this resulted in cuts to some poor school districts, and protections for spending in some wealthier school districts. The court also took exception to the fact that the state spent $1 billion on school construction every year while spending $2 billion on other educational needs. Ultimately, the court determined that Connecticut lacked a "rational, substantial, and verifiable plan to distribute money for education" and therefore ordered the state to draft a mandatory spending formula.

The second policy the court addressed was graduation standards. The court recognized that a Connecticut statute sets the credit requirements for graduation from high school. But according to the court, this requirement is illusory because large numbers of impoverished schools are graduating students that do not have basic skills. The court also found that elementary schools in impoverished districts were passing students who did not have grade-appropriate skills. Therefore, the court ordered the state to create an objective, mandatory, statewide graduation standard for both primary and secondary schools.

Next, the court addressed teacher and administrator evaluations and compensation. The court determined that the current teacher evaluation system was insufficiently connected to student learning, meaning that bad teachers could not be rehabilitated or removed. It also highlighted the "political chaos that often overwhelms the business of paying and reviewing superintendents." The court thus ordered the state to submit new plans for hiring, evaluating, promoting, terminating and compensating all education professionals.

Finally, the court addressed Connecticut’s expenditures on special education. The court recognized that spending on special education is largely dictated by federal law, specifically the Individuals with Disabilities Act. Nonetheless, the court determined that special-education spending resulted in a constitutional violation due to the state’s lack of standards to (1) identify disabled children who would benefit from education and (2) identify specific disabilities and methods for dealing with them. Accordingly, the court ordered the state to create such standards.

The state was given only 180 days to present the court with plans to address each of the four issues it identified. In addition, the court noted that in many of these areas, the relationship between the state and local entities—towns, school districts, and school boards—could be contributing to the constitutional violations the court found. It therefore ordered the state to include recommendations for changing the relationship between state and local government in the plans it submits to the court.

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