Supreme Court Justices Try To Interpret Judge's Meaning In School Funding Case

A year after a Superior Court judge issued a blockbuster ruling that would upend the state’s education system, justices of the state Supreme Court heard arguments in the case Thursday, peppering lawyers for the parties with questions about what exactly the judge meant.

Both sides in the landmark school funding case filed by the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding twelve years ago are seeking to have parts of Hartford Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher’s ruling overturned, with the state seeking to have the case dismissed in its entirety. They made their cases in a more than two-hour hearing Thursday, but they also faced a slew of questions about their take on several controversial findings in Moukawsher’s ruling.

While the plaintiffs in the CCJEF case filed the suit seeking sufficient funding and resources for every student in the state, Moukawsher called for a sweeping overhaul of the state’s education system, including not only reform of the state’s education funding formula, but also a revamping of the teacher evaluation and compensation system, the standards for high school graduation, and the special education system.

He called for those policies to be revised so they are “rationally, substantially, and verifiably” connected to education needs.

While Moukawsher found the state’s education funding system “irrational” and “arbitrary,” he said the state does spend “more than the bare minimum” on education.

With that decision, Chief Justice Chase T. Rogers said she thought “the court was saying that you can look anywhere in the cities and everywhere in the state and there is minimally adequate funding.”

Turning to Joseph Moodhe, the attorney for the plaintiffs, she

asked, “Are you saying today that you think he was making a finding that there was not minimum adequate funding in certain districts?”

Moodhe said that while Moukawsher does not say directly that funding is not adequate in cities in such as Bridgeport, he does include many findings that show a lack of resources in struggling districts.

“When you don’t have enough teachers to teach your classes, what happens?” Moodhe asked. “Class sizes get big, you get classes with different levels of needs.”

He said that in Bridgeport, classes swelled to 29 students, which was “too large for quality education.”

Justice Richard Palmer raised questions about Moukawsher’s order for revised educational policies, including his order that the state revise its standards for high school graduation and return with them to the court for its review.

One of the things Moukawsher wrote, Palmer said, is that schools are graduating students who are not meeting minimum requirements. He asked Moodhe if it is his opinion that Moukawsher was saying this is “irrational.”

“No, I think his opinion is that not having intelligent, reasonable standards for graduation is irrational,” Moodhe responded, but he said the plaintiffs take no position on this because it’s not the subject of their litigation.

“Is it up to the court to decide what the standard ought to be?” Palmer asked. “I’m not really quite sure that it should be up to the courts to decide that it’s preferable not to graduate someone who just is simply incapable of reading at what might be considered a 12th-grade level or doing math at what might be considered a 12th-grade level or whatever the standard might be.”

Several times various justices raised questions about whether Moukawsher’s decision would result in the courts becoming immersed in matters that were better handled by legislators.

Joseph Rubin, who represented the state for the attorney general’s office, argued that the state is providing adequate funding for education and is taking a reasonable approach, providing far more dollars for struggling districts.

Palmer said that in many of the lower performing districts, students are affected by many problems before they get to school that clearly have an effect on the ability of those students to succeed.

He asked Rubin: “What, if anything, is the state obligated to do to address those pre-existing problems in order to afford those students the kind of opportunity” that others have.

“I think the answer to that question is that the state should do and does do all that it reasonably can …” Rubin said, noting that free meals are available to students who need them, along with many other resources.

Rubin said, “We don’t know what kind of a slope we’re going down if we start saying that our system is not going to be constitutional until we get a certain test result. I’m not aware that that has ever led to success anyplace.”

The state has argued that the ruling represents a broad overreach of judicial authority, particularly when Moukawsher wrote about the need to create a new education funding formula and revamp other policies so they are “rationally, substantially and verifiably” connected to education needs.

In so doing, the state said in its appeal brief, the court created “a new constitutional standard of judicial scrutiny completely outside of this court’s remand in CCJEF or any other existing case law.”

While plaintiffs supported Moukawsher’s order for reform of the education funding system, they disagreed with the major finding that the state’s overall funding for education meets minimal constitutional standards.

After the arguments were delivered, Moodhe said in an interview with reporters that he remains “optimistic that at the end of the day, the court will see that Judge Moukawsher was right in his findings but should have been more forthcoming in finding a lack of resources in those communities.”

Moodhe said the judge used “too low a standard. It was kind of mechanical, formalistic. He just basically did a punch list … rather than looking at what those districts really needed in terms of teachers or supplies.”

He said there was “a disconnect” between Moukawsher’s finding on the adequacy of funding and his other findings about the difficulties in struggling districts that “have to leave you with the impression we’ve got a lot of problems in Connecticut.”

“I think what I was trying to communicate to Justice Rogers was ‘Look beyond the conclusion. Look at the evidence because the evidence doesn’t support that conclusion,’ ” Moodhe said.

A spokeswoman for the attorney general said Rubin declined to comment, beyond the arguments made in court.

Moodhe said it’s uncertain when the court will issue its decision. He said the last time the CCJEF case went to the Supreme Court, it took a well over a year for a decision to be issued.

The case, CCJEF v. Rell, was filed in 2005 by a coalition of small towns, big cities, labor unions and activist groups called the Coalition for Justice in Education Funding.

It was students in the Yale Law Clinic who initially filed the suit and argued it successfully during its first hearing at the Supreme Court about a decade ago. At that time, the court was asked to consider whether the idea of an adequate education was protected by the state constitution.

“It was a new concept for Connecticut,” said Jim Finley, principal consultant for CCJEF. “Most of the other cases in Connecticut were equity cases, about whether education aid was distributed on a needs-targeted basis so poorer communities got more than wealthier ones.”

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