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CONNECTICUT COURT RULING COULD HURT, NOT HELP, VULNERABLE STUDENTS

By Wendy Lecker

December 15, 2016

In September, Connecticut Judge Thomas Moukawsher of State Superior Court in Harford issued a ruling in a lawsuit challenging the State’s unequal and inadequate funding of public schools in poor cities, such as Bridgeport, New Britain, Windham and New London. The decision was immediately hailed by the media and commentators as “sweeping” and “unprecedented.”

In his 241-page ruling, Judge Moukawsher used very harsh words to condemn the state’s public education system, accusing the public schools of letting down Connecticut’s poorest high school students by awarding them “patronizing and illusory degrees” and rendering their education “meaningless.” But as lawyers, educators and lawmakers read past the Judge’s rhetorical flourishes, the actual legal conclusions and orders in the ruling began to set off alarm bells.

For example, Judge Moukawsher found that children in Connecticut’s poorest schools are only legally entitled to the “bare minimum” education program, not the level of programs and services offered in the state’s wealthy communities. Nor should these at-risk students expect the types of interventions, such as an extended school day, that would give them the same educational opportunities as their less needy peers. Those programs, he deemed, were “extras.”

On special education, shockingly, Judge Moukawsher called into question whether severely disabled children could learn and are worth the state’s education dollars. On preschool, the judge conceded that both sides “agreed” that high-quality early education is “the best weapon to get ahead of the literacy and numeracy problems plaguing schools in impoverished cities.” Yet he refused to order the State to provide this crucial program in low-income communities.

It’s no surprise, then, that both parties to the lawsuit – the plaintiff students and the State – have appealed the ruling to the Connecticut Supreme Court.

Several of the major issues the Supreme Court Justices will consider in Judge Moukawsher’s ruling include:

  • Does the Connecticut constitution require the State to provide children in poor communities only the “bare minimum” in facilities, teachers and instrumentalities of learning?
  • Are the state’s poorest schools entitled to additional resources to address the unique needs of students in poverty, those learning English, and students with disabilities?
  • Did Judge Moukawsher exceed his authority in ordering the State to rewrite Connecticut’s educational standards and the standards governing teacher employment and compensation? The judge’s ruling strongly suggests that new educational standards be accompanied by statewide standardized exit exams for both elementary and secondary school and that teacher ratings be based on students’ standardized test scores.

Judge Moukawsher’s ruling is grounded in an unfounded, narrow standard regarding the constitutional right of Connecticut public school children to an education. His ruling leaves children in the poorest schools in the state with nothing more than a bare minimum education.  In the judge’s view, the State need only provide an educational program consisting of what can be measured by standardized tests, and only to those children with no extraordinary needs.   

Rather than advancing education equity, Judge Moukawsher’s ruling threatens to leave Connecticut’s most vulnerable children behind. It is incumbent on the State Supreme Court to reverse course and ensure all children a meaningful opportunity for a well-rounded education that prepares them for success in school and life. 

 

Wendy Lecker is a Senior Attorney at Education Law Center and a Connecticut public school parent.

 

Press Contacts:

Sharon Krengel
Policy and Outreach Director
skrengel@edlawcenter.org
973-624-1815, x 24