The public schools enroll 546,000 students: 58% White, 21% Latino, and 13% African American, with 37% living in poverty and 6% learning English. The State spends $17,321 per pupil. (Most recent NCES data)
“There shall always be free public elementary and secondary schools in the state. The general assembly shall implement this principle by appropriate legislation.” Conn. Const. art. VIII, § 1.
“No person shall be denied the equal protection of the law nor be subjected to segregation or discrimination in the exercise or enjoyment of his or her civil or political rights because of religion, race, color, ancestry, national origin, sex or physical or mental disability.” Conn. Const. art. I, § 20, as amended.
In 1977, in Horton v. Meskill, the Connecticut Supreme Court declared education to be a fundamental right, held that public school students in the state are entitled to equal enjoyment of that right, and concluded that the State’s school funding system, which depended primarily on local property taxes without significant equalizing State support, was unconstitutional. The Court also held that “educational financing legislation must be strictly scrutinized” and “must, as a whole, further the policy of providing significant equalizing state support to local education.” Following the Court decision, the State Legislature enacted a plan to address school funding inequities.
In 1996, in Sheff v. O'Neill, the Connecticut Supreme Court concluded that the existence of extreme racial and ethnic isolation in the Hartford public school system deprived schoolchildren of a substantially equal educational opportunity in violation of the State constitution’s anti-segregation provision. A 2003 settlement in Sheff required the State to increase the percentage of Hartford students attending integrated schools to 30% by 2007.
After the State failed to reach that benchmark, a 2008 settlement required the State to build more magnet schools in Hartford and expand the number of seats for Hartford students in public schools in the surrounding suburbs. That five-year settlement was renewed in 2013. In December 2015, plaintiffs returned to Court alleging that the State had failed to comply with the agreement.
In a 2005 complaint, the plaintiffs in Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding (CCJEF) v. Rell alleged that Connecticut schoolchildren were being denied educational opportunities, in violation of the state constitution, due to the State’s flawed school funding system. In 2010, the Connecticut Supreme Court held that the constitution requires the State to ensure adequate educational resources and standards to prepare students for participation in democratic institutions and employment or higher education.
“To satisfy this standard, the state, through the local school districts, must provide students with an objectively ‘meaningful opportunity’ to receive the benefits of this constitutional right,” the Court said.
The Court remanded the case, instructing the trial court to determine whether the resources and standards for public education were adequate.
In 2016, the trial court found that the State was, overall, providing more resources than required for a constitutionally adequate education, based on a very narrow interpretation of the constitutional standard for adequacy. The court held that the State need only provide the “bare minimum” of facilities, teaching, curriculum and instrumentalities of learning. The court found that since, on average, the State was providing more than the bare minimum of this narrow range of resources, the State was fulfilling its constitutional obligation.
At the same time, the court found that, “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 [aid].” In its discussion of this finding, the court acknowledged that lack of funding forced poor cities like Bridgeport to increase class sizes and cut teachers, paraprofessionals, guidance counselors, athletics, music and other key resources. Thus, though the court did not order the State to increase funding, finding that the resources noted above were not necessary for an adequate education, it found that the way the State distributed aid was flawed because it deprived Connecticut’s poorest districts of these very resources.
The State appealed this decision to the Connecticut Supreme Court. The Education Law Center filed an amicus brief urging the high Court to set a meaningful constitutional standard for adequate resources and remand the case for reconsideration of the evidence of educational resource deficiencies under that proper standard.