A hearing was scheduled for Thursday in Hartford Superior Court as The Bee went to press this week for arguments over whether a lawsuit challenging the equity of funding the state’s public schools filed in 2005 will finally go forward or be delayed for more than a year. The court challenge filed by the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding (CCJEF) and 18 plaintiffs, including towns, cities, elected municipal officials, and the state’s two teachers unions, alleges that state government underfunds local school districts by about $2 billion, according to a cost study conducted the year the suit was first filed. The state is arguing, however, that a trial should not commence using eight-year-old data that ignores recent school reforms and funding increases. Incidentally, the proposed 15-month delay would also push the trial to after this year’s state elections.
The state was hoping to dismiss the lawsuit entirely based on the education reform legislation enacted in 2012, but a superior court judge rejected that gambit in December, ordering the trial to go forward. This year, as voters heighten their awareness of issues as the state campaigns get under way, would be the perfect time for a trial examining how Connecticut funds education, conducting that examination under oath, rather than under the auspices of this or that political action committee in paid commercials. The scarcity of resources for the state’s public schools has fostered problems in classrooms across the state, particularly in urban areas: large class sizes, high dropout rates, poor performance on standardized tests, and an overreliance on politically volatile local property tax rates for school funding. The full range of educational deficiencies have given Connecticut the nation’s worst “achievement gap” between its best and worst schools.
If the CCJEF suit is successful, the benefits of more equitable state funding solutions may not accrue directly to Newtown; it is expected less wealthy towns will be targeted for greater support. But any empirical analysis of the inequities of the state’s heavy reliance on local property taxes to fund education should lead to the inevitable conclusion that state government needs to take back some of the burden it has inexorably shifted to towns and cities over the years. (Newtown currently shoulders more than 93 percent of its $67 million minimum budget requirement.) By more evenly distributing educational opportunity and achievement across the state, Connecticut will open the door to greater economic opportunity and achievement. And that will benefit every town.
What better time to have both this court trial and this political debate than in a year when we elect all our state officials, including a governor? Next year will be too late.