Connecticut High Court Strikes Down School Funding Lawsuit, Demonstrating School Equity’s Uphill National Battle

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After plaintiffs waged a decade-long legal fight to alter the way Connecticut pays for schools, a loss before the state Supreme Court Wednesday illustrates the uphill battle advocates face in efforts to prove state funding systems leave poor districts scrambling for cash.

As they did in Connecticut, education advocates and school districts frequently turn to the courts in efforts to force more state dollars to flow to the poorest school districts. Though several equity lawsuits are still pending in state courts across the country — from Arizona to Delaware — a history of similar litigation shows the success rate for equitable funding advocates is mixed.

State court rulings often differ because state constitutions offer a variety of education priorities, said Marguerite Roza, director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University. It is therefore hard to predict how one state funding lawsuit will end based on previous court rulings. And though some courts have “come closer to touching policy” than others in identifying a funding fix, she said judges should stick to determining whether an equity problem exists but stop short of prescribing remedies.

“I don’t think a court is any better off than anybody else that’s trying right now to figure out what’s the best way to solve these problems,” she said.

In a 53-page opinion released on Wednesday, Chief Justice Chase T. Rogers punted Connecticut’s school funding issue to the state legislature, striking down a lower court’s ruling that called for sweeping changes. Rogers noted that the court “joins the voices of those who urge the state to do all that it reasonably can” to ensure students receive the “minimally adequate education” required under the state constitution, and that “the neediest children have the support that they need to actually take advantage of that opportunity.” Ultimately, however, the court ruled in a split 4–3 decision the state had met its legal obligations.

“It is not the function of the courts … to create educational policy or to attempt by judicial fiat to eliminate all of the societal deficiencies that continue to frustrate the state’s educational efforts,” Rogers wrote. Beyond determining whether constitutional obligations are met, “courts simply are not in a position to determine whether schools in poorer districts would be better off expanding scarce additional resources on more teachers, more computers, more books, more technical staff, more meals, more guidance counselors, more health care, more English instruction, greater preschool availability, or some other resource.”

Wednesday’s news is part of an ongoing battle — played out for decades between judges, legislatures, and education researchers — over the effects of school funding on student performance, and whether a fiscal increase is the proper tool to close the achievement gap between poor students and their affluent peers. Too often, advocates say, poor schools get the short end of the stick.

“We are seeing across the country this pattern of high-need districts getting underfunded relative to low-need districts,” said Ary Amerikaner, director of P12 resource equity at The Education Trust, a national advocacy group. “High-need districts, we know, need more, not less. Equal isn’t equitable.”

Though critics have long maintained that education problems can’t be fixed through increased funding alone, one recent report found that a 10 percent increase in education dollars over the course of a child’s schooling increased student outcomes — and those gains were most notable for children from low-income households.

In Connecticut, a reversal from the state’s highest court follows a sweeping decision in late 2016 by a lower-court judge, which ordered the state — among the nation’s wealthiest — to reconfigure its school funding scheme. Though an outlier on the global stage, Connecticut’s school funding system, which relies on a combination of state aid and local property taxes, isn’t structurally different than that in other states — part of a national system where school funding is highly correlated with ZIP codes.

That lower-court decision didn’t simply stop with the way the state distributes education dollars, however. It also ordered changes to the way the state evaluates and pays teachers, defines primary and secondary education, and pays for special education. Even the plaintiffs in the lawsuit — who brought the case 12 years ago — were surprised by the far-reaching decision.

In its ruling Wednesday, the Connecticut Supreme Court majority noted that the plaintiffs “convincingly demonstrated” that an achievement gap exists between the state’s poorest and richest students — but failed to prove the disparity was based on unlawful discrimination against needy students, rather than a “complex web of disadvantaging societal conditions over which the schools have no control.” In fact, the court noted, low-income districts receive a larger chunk of state aid than wealthy schools.

Although Connecticut does direct a higher portion of state dollars to its neediest schools, Amerikaner said the state’s system is far from progressive. In a recent analysis of state funding allocations, The Education Trust found that Connecticut falls near the middle of states in terms of the gap between low- and high-poverty schools. Connecticut provides low-income districts roughly 5 percent more in state funding than wealthier districts, the analysis found. That state-level increase for low-income schools has a limited effect because the state funding formula relies heavily on local property taxes; Connecticut’s state-level aid is minimal compared to that in almost every other state, the report found.

Meanwhile, the group that brought the Connecticut lawsuit — the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding — called the Supreme Court’s reversal a “deep disappointment.” The coalition, which includes cities, local education boards, and teachers unions, said in a statement it plans to pursue “all legal remedies” to have the court’s decision “reconsidered and overturned.”

“The Connecticut Supreme Court was closely divided by a 4–3 margin against a new trial that would have clarified many of the still disputed and unresolved issues of the case,” James Finley, the coalition’s principal consultant, said in a statement. “A case of this landmark magnitude should not be left dangling on such a close vote but requires instead the kind of clarity for the future of the state’s educational system that only a new trial and a definitive majority can establish.”

Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen, however, said the lower court had overstepped its authority and was “grateful” for the Supreme Court’s reversal. Though changes to the state’s education funding system rest in the hands of the legislature, he said in a statement, the case did bring to light “profound educational challenges that deserve continuing significant and sustained action.” Gov. Dannel Malloy offered a similar analysis.

“The urgency to continue the fight to distribute greater educational dollars where there is the greatest need has not demised,” Malloy said in a statement. “The truth is that no court can mandate political courage, and it is my hope that current and future policymakers continue to make progress with a more fair distribution of educational aid.”

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