Back in 2004, when Dianne deVries established the nonprofit Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Educational Funding (CCJEF), two Fairfield County community leaders were among the first to throw support behind the cause — then-Stamford mayor Dannel Malloy, and former Newtown First Selectman Herb Rosenthal.
Today, Governor Dannel Malloy has reverted to an oppositional position, while Mr Rosenthal has remained active with the coalition as president and Newtown’s representative of the CCJEF Steering Committee. He and Ms deVries visited The Newtown Bee recently to share a notice that is being circulated to supporters and state community and education leaders, updating them on the coalition’s status in regard to a longstanding legal action against the state.
During their visit, Ms deVries explained that the coalition has a simple, three-point agenda: revamp the Education Cost Sharing (ECS) formula and related grants to reflect the real cost of adequately preparing all students for college or advanced training, the modern workforce, and productive citizenship; ensure that adequate and equitable school funding is distributed fairly for all students and their municipalities; and shift the lion’s share of funding for school operations away from local property taxes and onto the state.
The coalition’s broad-based membership includes municipalities, local boards of education, statewide professional education associations and unions, other Connecticut nonprofit pro-education advocacy organizations, parents and grandparents, public school students age 18 or older, and other Connecticut taxpayers.
According to its website, CCJEF’s demographically diverse communities span the state geographically and are home to nearly half of all pre-K to12 public school students, including a majority of children who are poor, black or Latino, limited-English proficient, or in need of special education services.
Ten years ago, as one of its first efforts, the coalition filed suit contending the state has failed to adequately and equitably fund public K–12 schools in accordance with the Connecticut Constitution. That case, CCJEF vs Rell, is finally scheduled to begin in early September.
The protracted delays and delaying tactics to get to that starting point, or the next chapter in a decade-long effort, have been troubling to Mr Rosenthal, who also served on the Newtown Board of Education including a period of time as its chair prior to his being elected to five terms as first selectman.
“The state has been throwing everything but the kitchen sink at us, every legal maneuver and delaying tactic, surprising since Dan Malloy was one of the founding members of CCJEF when he was mayor of Stamford,” Mr Rosenthal said. “However, fortunately for the school children for whom we are advocating, our great legal team has been prevailing in court thus far.”
Pro Bono Assistance
Plaintiffs are being represented pro bono by Debevoise & Plimpton LLP, the Yale Law School Education Adequacy Project, and David Rosen & Associates PC. The defendants (in their official capacities, as prescribed by Connecticut law) include Gov Malloy, along with the state treasurer, comptroller, State Board of Education, and the commissioner of education, or their successors. All are represented by the attorney general and his staff.
During the preceding ten years, more than 200 Yale Law School students, aided by several clinical faculty, made important contributions to building the case and winning a 2010 Supreme Court decision. Yale Law School was the first law school in the nation to undertake litigation of an education adequacy/equity constitutional challenge.
The complaint going before the court in September alleges that the “unsuitability and inequality of educational opportunities, as well as the subsequent harm suffered by students, is caused by the state’s flawed educational funding system as evidenced by the inadequate and inequitable education inputs and low level and unconscionable disparities of education outputs.”
Ms deVries explained that after accounting for inflation, the Education Cost Sharing formula — the state’s major equalization mechanism for providing aid to municipalities for their public PK-12 school districts — has remained essentially flat throughout the past quarter-century.
Yet, over this same time period, what Connecticut parents, employers, and society in general expect from schools, teachers, administrators, and students has risen to unprecedented levels. Whether as mandates or standards, the cost of educating children far exceeds what the ECS or other state grants has in the past funded.
Instead, local property taxes have carried the lion’s share of the burden. CCJEF seeks to reverse that.
Supreme Court Decision
In March 2010, on plaintiffs’ appeal of an unfavorable pretrial decision regarding adequacy, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled in CCJEF v Rell that the state constitution ensures the right of every Connecticut public school student to an effective, meaningful, and quality (adequate) education, and the state must pay for it.
That 2010 CCJEF decision added substance to the rulings in Horton v Meskill (1977, 1982 and 1985), in which the Connecticut Supreme Court affirmed that the state constitution provides a fundamental right to “substantially equal educational opportunity” for all school children and that the reliance on local property taxes to fund education, without regard to wealth disparities, was in violation of the constitution.
The Sheff v O’Neill (1989) decision further affirmed the precept of equal educational opportunity. Thus the 2010 CCJEF education adequacy ruling added to long-established foundations of equity. In its 4-3 decision for the plaintiffs, the Supreme Court remanded the case back to the Hartford Superior Court for trial on the merits of plaintiffs’ adequacy and equity claims.
Documentation supplied by Mr Rosenthal reveals that the Supreme Court specified that a suitable education is one that prepares school children to:
*participate fully in democratic institutions, such as jury service and voting;
*progress to institutions of higher education;
*attain productive employment; and
*contribute to the state’s economy.
Drawing on standards articulated in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity v State of New York (2006) and other state court decisions, the Connecticut Supreme Court called for:
*minimally adequate physical facilities and classrooms that provide enough light, space, heat, and air to permit children to learn;
*minimally adequate instrumentalities of learning such as desks, chairs, pencils, and reasonably current textbooks”;
*minimally adequate teaching of reasonably up-to-date basic curricula such as reading, writing, mathematics, science, and social studies; and
*sufficient personnel adequately trained to teach those subject areas.
The Burdens Remain
Mr Rosenthal pointed out during his interview, that Connecticut remains the most reliant state in the nation on property taxes to fund pre-K to grade 12 public education.
As a longstanding member and former officer of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities (CCM), he knows from a study conducted by the agency that on average, 62 cents out of every $1 raised in property taxes goes to pay for the local schools that serve some 92 percent of all public school children.
In 2013, school districts spent nearly $1.8 billion on special education (SPED), about 22 percent of their operating budgets. State SPED Excess Cost reimbursement and federal IDEA funding together amount to only about 15 percent of districts’ SPED expenditures.
So its local taxpayers footing the rest.
The SPED Excess Cost grant remains capped, as are the pupil transportation and adult education grants. At the same time, bilingual education funding is equally grim, amounting to about $64 per student during the 30 months they are eligible for services, and the ECS formula weight for English as second language students was eliminated last year.
While he and his successors in Newtown including First Selectman Pat Llodra continue to support CCJEF, Mr Rosenthal believes that a number of other mayors and first selectmen have yet to sign on or throw support toward the effort for a number of reasons.
“I think they all believe education is important, but I think people have varying degrees of commitment,” he said. “I still go to CCM meetings and interact with a lot of them and I know they are hurting with budgets, and trying to fund education whether it’s the big cities or the smaller towns.”
And while acknowledging that the state’s biggest cities may face the greatest challenges because of their student populations, Mr Rosenthal said he believes it is the state’s smallest towns that are actually hurting the most because of inadequate funding.
“This is a pretty universal problem in Connecticut,” he said. “It may not be recognized by towns that have a lot of money or a great school system, but I think everybody would agree that there has to be a restructuring of how we fund education in Connecticut.”
He believes the governor and legislators care, but he also thinks political leaders are seeing there is a looming “big economic hole” that officials are expecting to worsen during the next couple of fiscal cycles.
“I’m sure that’s part of it, how they fund this thing and make it work,” he said. “We’d love to have that conversation with them, but so far we haven’t been able to.”