When the Connecticut Supreme Court heard oral arguments Thursday in the long-awaited case on the state’s education funding levels, several justices appeared wary of delving into an issue that some on the bench believed should be addressed by the Legislature.
In his September 2016 decision in Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding v. Rell, Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher said the state’s funding formula was “irrational and unconstitutional” because it benefited suburban schools over their urban peers. Moukawsher ordered the state to develop a new way to fund education.
Associate Attorney General Joseph Rubin, arguing before a packed courtroom Thursday, told the justices the trial court’s ruling created a new legal standard, and that the state already provides a quality education for all students.
“The state more than meets the minimum standards and Connecticut schools already go far beyond the state’s minimum,” Rubin said. “The [trial] court didn’t find fault with the level of state funding on education, but called its distribution unconstitutional.”
At one point, Rubin said “education is hard and complicated and difficult” and that it’s up to the legislative and executive branches—not the courts—to make improvements if educational standards are not up to par.
Justice Richard Palmer drew a laugh from the audience when he asked, “How long does the Legislature need to make the results better?”
Rubin pointed to better graduation rates and test scores as signs improvements are being made.
Still, Palmer and other justices appeared hesitant on the court’s role in making education law.
“Is this a policy decision that goes beyond the rule of the court?” Palmer asked.
Chief Justice Chase Rogers expressed concern to Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding attorney Joseph Moodhe about courts weighing in on where funding should go. Rogers asked, “Is the court going to make policy decisions on how money is going to be spent?”
Rubin spent most of his time giving examples of how he believes the state helps all students, especially those in poorer communities.
Rubin said the state’s education formula is geared toward helping poor districts, ensuring funds for staffing, technical support and interventionists.
Moodhe argued poor school districts don’t get the same resources as their suburban counterparts. He noted that 91 percent of Bridgeport students don’t meet the state’s math standards.
Moodhe repeated that the issue was not just about money, but about resources for teachers, computers and up-to-date infrastructure. He added it’s not unusual for schools in urban communities to “have no heat during the winter and outdated technologies.”
Moodhe said he believes Moukawsher’s ruling was flawed because it “did not look at resources on a district level,” claiming the trial court “consistently refers to statewide” statistics, which could be skewed.
When it came to Connecticut’s most impoverished communities, the state is pulling its weight, Rubin said. In 2013, Bridgeport ranked virtually the same as Avon, Canton and West Hartford in per pupil spending. Bridgeport is among the state’s largest urban districts, while Avon, Canton and West Hartford are more affluent.
At one point during Rubin’s oral arguments, Palmer asked: “In some lower-performing school districts with varying degrees of impoverishment, there is a lot of things confronting students before they get to school. What is the state’s position on its obligation to address those problems?”
Rubin responded the state “should and does do all it can within the education confines. It provides food. It provides numerous programs and additional time for students that need them.”