WNPR

Debate Continues Over Court's Role In Deciding Education Funding

Feb 8, 2018

A recent Connecticut Supreme Court decision found that the legislature, not the court, is responsible for decisions around funding the state's public schools. But that sparked a debate between an advocate and a lawmaker over where the responsibility actually lays.

The decade-long lawsuit claimed that the state doesn't equitably fund its public schools, and it’s left students in some cities and towns behind as other, more privileged students across the state thrived. A judge agreed with that claim, but in a split decision, the state Supreme Court said it wasn’t its place to weigh in.

"In our view, the Supreme Court in Connecticut showed a callous indifference to the plight of tens of thousands of poor and at-risk students in Connecticut,” said Jim Finley on Connecticut Public Radio's Where We Live. Finley is a principal consultant for the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding, the group that sued the state back in 2005.

"It really turned the clock back in regard to judicial activism on behalf of our poor and minority students in Connecticut," Finley said.

He's referring to two prior court cases -- Horton v. Meskel and Sheff v. O'Neill -- where the courts did weigh in on what a public education should look like. The recent court ruling did not.

State Rep. Andy Fleischmann saw it differently. He pointed out that the constitution states that the General Assembly is tasked with making sure there are free public schools in the state.

"The ruling of the Supreme Court was basically to read that part of the constitution on its face,” Fleischmann said.

He agreed that more work needs to be done, but he said the legislature has provided hundreds of millions in extra dollars to struggling districts over the last six years. And last year, lawmakers rewrote the education cost sharing formula to allow more money to flow to the neediest schools. 

Fleischmann also said it takes more than money to fix this complicated problem.

"I also reject the notion that one should simply point to the families and to the disadvantages and say, 'That's why the districts are struggling, more money, more money, more money',” he said. “Because, the truth is, among Alliance Districts, some are turning around, and some are not. And the ones that are turning around, it's not that they have families that are better off, it's that they have districts that are better run."

The Alliance Districts represent more than 200,000 students and over 400 schools, and are selected based on student performance and overall need. These districts get additional money and support from the state. Fleischmann said Bloomfield, Bristol, and New London are good examples of Alliance Districts that have begun to turn around.

“They have better governance,” he said. “They have better leadership… not just that they have better school leaders, but they have systems for developing leaders and keeping them in place...  [and] they have better use of data.”