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Connecticut Court to Decide if Preschool is a State Constitutional Right

Dec 28, 2015

The state's constitution currently only guarantees an elementary and secondary education.

An upcoming lawsuit is set to determine whether Connecticut should provide all students with access to preschool. 

The Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding has sued the state, claiming that Connecticut's funding system is unbalanced and has deepened the divide between the haves and the have-nots. 

One of the coalition's arguments is that preschool should be available to all children. In October, a judge allowed this idea to be on the table when the case goes to trial. 

This was a pretty big deal for the coalition, because the state's constitution only guarantees an elementary and secondary education. 

"Study after study has shown that if a child is unprepared by the time they enter kindergarten, it's sort of a predictor of failure of lack of meeting potential," said Jim Finley, a policy advisor for the coalition.   

The governor and the legislature have supported the idea of universal preschool, but implementation has been slow due to budget problems at the state.

"We think that if we're successful in this lawsuit that many folks in the legislature and perhaps some in the executive branch will be silently cheering that," Finley said, "because it will enable them to make the funding decisions that they haven't been able to make in a political environment."

While Governor Dannel Malloy has championed preschool, the state's attorney general has argued that it's not a constitutional right. In 2005, Malloy was a founding member of the coalition his administration is now fighting against. Malloy has said this issue shouldn't be decided by a court, and points to the state's efforts to add money for more preschool programs as evidence that the state is going in the right direction.

Preschool access in Connecticut is mixed, with kids in poor cities much less likely to go to preschool than kids in wealthy towns. 

The court could also decide whether something called "wrap-around services" are an educational right. These are services that focus on the entire family, instead of just the student, like family counseling and school-based health clinics.

CJEF will be arguing before the Hartford Superior Court that these services should be available for all high-need students. 

"If we start from the point that our goal is to try to ensure that every child, regardless of resource need, is given that opportunity to succeed, then we have to determine what resources we're willing to pay for and provide those students," Finley said.

In 2010, a state court ruled that wraparound services in high-need districts could be considered an educational right.

The state legislature  also recognized this need. In 2012, lawmakers provided several million dollars to create or beef-up wrap-around services throughout the state's poor areas.

But there's no state law that requires districts provide these services. If the court rules in favor of the coalition, then the state and districts will have to decide how to not only create these services, but also pay for them. 

"Assuming that we do win in the court case," Finley said, "there will be a remedy phase which would involve the legislature and the governor, and [CCJEF] as the plaintiff group, in trying to negotiate funding and other aspects of an education finance system that meets the court's requirements."

This is where things get tricky. The coalition wants the state to spend more money on education to ease the burden on local taxpayers. But the state is already under-funding public education by over $600 million annually, and budget cuts and deficits happen just about every year.

Finley said the state has many revenue streams it could tap, such as income taxes or user fees, to help pay for the possible reforms.

Correction: An earlier version of this report stated the case is being argued before the state Supreme Court. It is being argued before the Superior Court.