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Connecticut Supreme Court To Hear Landmark School Funding Case

Ryan Caron King
Robert Cotto, Jr. previews the upcoming Connecticut Supreme Court case on school funding.

A little over a year ago, Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher issued a sweeping decision in a landmark education lawsuit centered on the way Connecticut funds its public schools.

An appeal of that decision goes before the Connecticut Supreme Court this week.

WNPR invited Robert Cotto, Jr. who is a lecturer in Educational Studies at Trinity College and a doctoral student at UConn’s Neag School of Education, to bring us up to date on the long-running case brought by the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding.

Robert Cotto, Jr: The case, brought in 2004-2005, originally was brought by advocates that were arguing that the state’s method of funding public education was basically unconstitutional.

They basically said that there wasn’t a sufficient or adequate amount of funding for schools in Connecticut -- public schools in particular, and the funding that was there was not being allocated in an equitable fashion -- meaning that towns and cities that needed more were not getting the resources that they needed.

WNPR’s Diane Orson: And it’s been a long journey, but the case did go to trial. Can you summarize what came out of that?

The trial lasted for about a year after many years - almost a decade - of planning and preparing for the trial. And after the year of testimony from parents and administrators, educators, and all sorts of people that are affiliated with the schools -- not only in Connecticut but even nationally -- the judge provided a ruling last September, 2016.

The ruling was actually somewhat complex. And not only was it complex, but also pretty wide-sweeping.

Tell us a little more about that.

Basically what the judge said, was Connecticut does spend a sufficient amount of money on its public schools.

But he focused on many of the inequalities in terms of achievement, and also some of the inequalities in terms of how some towns and cities are able to get more when they really don’t deserve it.

Finally he really made an indictment on the way that schools are held accountable. And that’s really what he focused on.

And so, what’s tricky about the decision is that none of the sides are really happy in the end.

From the state of Connecticut’s position, they felt that if the judge believed that Connecticut spends a sufficient amount of money, then the case is over and everyone should go home. That’s it. Connecticut has done its job.  

From the plaintiff’s perspective, they didn’t appeal it exactly [but] they asked for a review. They believe that Connecticut isn’t spending a sufficient amount of money on its public schools, contrary to what the judge believed. And the funding that’s there isn’t equitably distributed to towns and cities that need more. So that’s why we’re going to court this week.

So there seems to be confusion about what the ruling meant?

I think that’s part of it. As part of the judge’s ruling, he called for some pretty radical changes in terms of having exit exams for students [and] really reshaping special education law. And so some of those things, the state of Connecticut would argue, go well beyond what was the original topic of the case which was really education funding.

Why do you think this case is important?

What we’ve found over the decades in Connecticut is that these court cases can really push the legislature to make changes for education policy and in this case, we’re talking about education funding.

The last major court case we had related to education funding -- back in 1977 -- pushed the state of Connecticut to make ed funding more equitable and we’re kind of finding ourselves back in a similar spot.

Depending on how this case comes out, the legislature will have to respond by either adding more state funds to public education, or distributing those funds more equitably -- or perhaps not if the case falls apart.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Diane Orson is a special correspondent with Connecticut Public. She is a longtime reporter and contributor to National Public Radio. Her stories have been heard on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition and Here And Now. Diane spent seven years as CT Public Radio's local host for Morning Edition.

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