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Photo Credit: Getty Images

March 31, 2016

Talking Points

Connecticut’s school funding system is on trial. Why has it taken so long to address inequities?

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Correction Appended March 31

(Hartford, Connecticut) — In courtroom 312 of the Hartford Superior Court, a handful of observers look on as lawyers argue in an often unintelligible mash-up of eduspeak and legalese. This much is clear: the plaintiffs want schools to be equitably funded. The defendant is the state of Connecticut, which says there is already enough money to go around  — and adding money isn’t a sure bet to improve schools anyway.
A day at trial in early March found the court considering value-added measures of teacher quality, the extent to which qualifications predict teacher effectiveness, and how best to spend scarce resources. The discussion wasn’t at all theoretical: the case will help determine the course of public education in Connecticut — how it is funded and whether students in poor districts get a fair opportunity to succeed.
The case underscores the reality of looking to a court to make policy: even with a favorable decision, the already decades-long wait for equitable funding may persist, slowed by appeals and political gridlock. But for better or for worse, the courts may be the only way to get full funding to the districts in Connecticut that need it.
CCJEF v. Rell
Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding (CCJEF) v. Rell was originally filed in 2005 by a coalition of teachers unions, parents, and advocates contending that the state had failed to fund schools adequately or equitably. The lawsuit was dismissed, but the plaintiffs won on appeal in the state supreme court, which sent it back down to the lower court for trial.
The named defendant is former governor Jodi Rell, who left office in 2010 and now has nothing to do with this case. The CCJEF director and driving force behind the litigation recently passed away. Dannel Malloy has gone from being a plaintiff (as mayor of Stamford) to being a defendant (as governor).
The origins of the complaint trace back even further — to a separate 1998 funding lawsuit that was ultimately withdrawn because the plaintiffs were unable to pay legal fees.
In January 2016, after almost 18 years — including a long crawl through the courts — the case finally went to trial. “The longer it drags on,” said Jim Finley, who helps lead CCJEF, “[the more] opportunities are compromised for yet another generation of students.” Finley hopes for a decision before the end of the year.
Their Day in Court
CCJEF’s argument is in some respects quite straightforward: a number of districts, despite serving mostly disadvantaged students, get less funding per pupil than more affluent areas because of the state’s heavy reliance on property taxes to fund schools. The plaintiffs contend this imbalance constitutes a breach of Connecticut’s constitutional guarantee of “substantially equal educational opportunity” as codified by the state’s supreme court.
The plaintiffs also point to the results of underfunding: overcrowded classrooms, decades-old textbooks, decaying facilities, and a lack of basic supplies. In one court filing, CCJEF highlighted the fact that a high school in Greenwich, an affluent suburb, had nearly twice as many guidance counselors per pupil as high schools in Bridgeport, New London, and Danbury. (Related: 3 of America’s top 5 school districts hire more security officers than counselors)
These inequities, the lawsuit argues, have contributed to one of the largest achievement gaps in the country.
In early March, as the plaintiffs were completing their case, they presented evidence that students in low-income Connecticut schools have less effective teachers. These schools were much likelier than affluent ones to be staffed by teachers with limited experience and lower scores on certification tests, said expert witness Jennifer King Rice, a professor at the University of Maryland.  
Rice said there were “consistent patterns of lower levels of teacher qualifications on average [in] districts serving higher-poverty students.” She indicated that most efforts to improve teacher quality require more funding. For instance, studies show that salary incentives can help recruit and retain teachers — but such initiatives are expensive.
A lawyer for the state attorney general’s office cross-examined Rice, noting that teacher qualifications are flawed proxies for effectiveness, a point Rice conceded.
The state also argued that it had implemented several efforts to improve low-performing districts — including expansion of charter schools and an overhaul of teacher evaluation — making more dollars unnecessary. These arguments echoed its contention in court filings that both the governor and legislature “have acted aggressively and appropriately … to help improve those districts most in need.”
Unmentioned by the defendants was the fact that places where accountability and choice have been successful — like New York City and New Orleans — also significantly increased spending.
The state has just begun its argument in the case this week with the testimony of state Commissioner of Education Dianna Wentzel.
Education Politics in Connecticut
In Connecticut, as elsewhere, the polarized education debate has been loosely split between those who favor dramatic reforms and those who say that existing schools will succeed with greater investment.
Jennifer Alexander, of the reform group ConnCan, generally takes the former view: “We believe that more money alone is not going to improve our education system.” Alexander says that significantly increasing spending is not realistic; she believes distributing resources more equitably should be the goal.
Katie Roy, of the Connecticut School Finance Project, declined to comment on the record about the lawsuit specifically but said money is important for schools to be effective and that the state needed to create a more coherent, equitable funding system.
CCJEF focuses on funding for traditional public schools, but Alexander argues that charter schools aren’t fairly funded either. Finley, of CCJEF, says the group doesn’t have a formal position on charters but emphasizes that the vast majority of Connecticut students attend district schools. (Whether charters actually receive the same funding as district schools is a hotly disputed question. Supporters claim charters are significantly underfunded, but an analysis by Rutgers University professor Bruce Baker found that in most cases spending differences between the two sectors were small.)
Disagreements over funding were heightened with news in February that Governor Malloy, who angered teachers with a push for tough teacher evaluation and support for charter schools, was proposing a budget that would cut education funding to help fill a budget shortfall.
Malloy was endorsed for re-election in 2014 by state and national teachers’ unions, but his proposal was sharply criticized by American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten: “I have been briefed in the last couple of days on what [Malloy is] doing. I am just shocked. I am really shocked.” (A spokesperson for the governor did not respond to a request for comment.)
A budget deal to close this year’s $220 million deficit was recently reached and included some cuts to specific education programs, though not to the state’s overarching funding formula. Even greater challenges loom ahead: next fiscal year’s deficit is pegged at $900 million, which must be dealt with before the legislative session ends in May.
To some, the budget issues underscore how difficult it will be to address school funding issues, even if the plaintiffs prevail; a remedy might require a significant increase in spending at a time of budget reductions. “We are looking at deep state deficits now and for the next several years at least. There just simply isn’t going to be more money put into the system without pretty dramatic changes,” Alexander said.
Finley, of CCJEF, said that shouldn’t be an excuse when the court considers its decision: “Court case after court case across the country have said that potential cost is not a defense against constitutionally defective education finance systems.  Lack of political will to adequately and equitably fund public education brought this trial about.”
Some Poor Districts Shortchanged
Research generally shows that putting more money into schools improves student outcomes, including test scores, high school graduation rates, and adult income. Two recent national studies found that court-ordered funding increases used to raise teacher salaries, reduce class size, and fix school buildings led to significant gains for students in low-income districts.
A report by the Education Law Center, which supports efforts to increase school funding, found that although Connecticut is fourth nationwide in spending per pupil, it is only average in funding relative to its wealth and in how fairly it distributes funding.
The state’s allocation formula doesn’t send enough to the students who need it most, said Baker, of Rutgers, who wrote the report and testified in support of CCJEF. There are particularly large inequities in certain poor cities, including Bridgeport and Waterbury, Baker said. (The state does send additional aid to high-poverty schools in Hartford and New Haven, particularly for magnet schools.)
A report from the federal Department of Education also found that the state spends significantly less in some poor and high-minority districts than in more affluent, white ones. For instance, schools in Bridgeport with a poverty rate of 28 percent get about $2,000 less per pupil in state and local funds than neighboring Fairfield, where just four percent of students are poor. Greenwich, with a 6 percent poverty rate, spends a remarkable $8,000 more per student than Bridgeport.
The Unfortunate Near-Inevitability of School Funding Lawsuits
School finance lawsuits continue to be filed and wind their way through courts across the country, including in California, Texas, Florida, Tennessee, Washington, and Kansas.  Nationally, education funding remains lower than it was before the Great Recession, and in most states extra money doesn’t go to schools serving disadvantaged students.
CCJEF’S lawsuit highlights the tradeoffs that come with court challenges to inequitable or inadequate school funding.  
The judge in the case is expected to rule later this year, 11 years after the suit was filed. Although the court challenge may well lead to an order to help poor schools and students, a decision for the plaintiffs will likely mean more appeals, extending the funding crisis at many high-poverty schools across Connecticut. Such a ruling may pressure legislators to address the budget; then again, they may simply wait and watch as the case crawls through the judicial system.
Even as the case plays out in front of policymakers — and despite the fact that most, if not all, of Connecticut’s education advocates agree that the funding system is broken — little or no progress has been made legislatively.
So while it shouldn’t take a court case — in Connecticut or elsewhere — to get poor kids their fair share of funding, it may have to.

Correction: A previous version of this piece incorrectly stated that Katie Roy of the Connecticut School Finance Project argues that charter schools in Connecticut aren't fairly funded. The piece has been updated to remove this reference.