Unequal Education Prompts Judicial RantSeptember 19th, 2016

A Connecticut judge has ordered the state government to implement key improvements to public education or else. Or else what the judge doesn’t say explicitly, but he’s so harsh in his critique of standards for academic and professional performance that state legislative and executive leaders probably shouldn’t laugh in his face. His tone was so critical that his decision made national news.

Making frequent reference to the testimony he’d heard, trial judge Thomas Moukawsher read his plain-language decision from the bench, castigating the defendant state of Connecticut for an irrational system of elementary and secondary education. The plaintiffs’ evidence, he ruled, proved beyond a reasonable doubt that in several crucial areas, the state is failing to implement the constitutional directive to provide a free public education for all children. Drawing inescapable conclusions from the testimony of the various experts who had testified at trial earlier this year, the judge found the services provided to many children so inadequate that they don’t satisfy state constitutional guarantees.

The court focused on four key deficiencies, finding no rational basis for school funding decisions, for elementary and secondary school instructional requirements, for professional evaluation and compensation and for the provision of services to children with learning disabilities. The judge ordered the state to present a plan within six months that would remedy the enumerated deficiencies, but he didn’t say just how the legislative branch might proceed to comply with his ruling or mention what he might do if the state fails to comply.

State school funding decisions are arbitrary, with rich communities benefiting at the expense of children in poor urban districts. Some years ago, in the wake of a state supreme court decision faulting the government for unconstitutional inequities in the allocation of educational resources, state legislators devised a formula to deliver resources where most needed, but that formula has since degenerated to a system that fails to address the inequities. A third of the state money spent on schools is dedicated to building construction and renovation, the judge pointed out, at a time when the population of school children is in decline. This huge pot of money–one billion dollars–is spent disproportionately in districts with politically powerful legislators. The judge didn’t say it explicitly, but he implied that connected construction contractors are the principal beneficiaries of school funding decisions. “Spending,” the judge stated, “must follow a formula influenced only by school needs and good practices.”

The state has no rational, objective definition of elementary and secondary education. Elementary school children in many districts now enter high school without knowing how to read, write or do math well enough to progress, and many urban high schools now graduate students who fail to meet basic academic requirements.

The judge found unanimous agreement among the witnesses appearing at trial that only tiny minorities of students in the poorest school districts leave elementary school with sufficient skills to learn anything in high school, but Connecticut has no rational standard for students to pass to secondary school. The judge pointed out that the situation with unprepared elementary school children is dire but not irremediable. He was sympathetic to the plea of one trial witness who advocated “triage,” whereby all educational resources are marshaled to bring third-graders to third-grade competency. He ordered the state to propose a definition of what it means to have an elementary school education that is rationally and primarily related to developing the basic skills needed for high school.

High school graduation rates have been rising, the judge noted, but the educational attainments of graduates, according to facts and figures cited in the decision, have been falling in many urban school districts. Taking a critical look at the statutes governing high school graduation, the judge found them devoid of substance, likening them to a “sugar-cube boat” that dissolves before it’s launched. The judge referred to the report of a legislative task force convened in 2015 on graduation requirements as “some kind of spoof.” A new system is constitutionally required to rationally, substantially and verifiably connect a high-school diploma with an education.

The problem with professional pay and evaluation is that they have no rational connection to the education of children. Teacher evaluation is locally controlled and results in a stated proficiency rate of 98 percent, a figure that the judge found neither accurate nor helpful. Such guidelines as the state has for teacher evaluation are not mandatory, and they do not measure student growth over the course of the school year. Standards for the evaluation of principals and other administrative personnel are even looser, the court found. The problem with teacher pay is that it’s determined by just two factors: seniority and the possession of advanced degrees. That’s not good enough, according to the judge. A rational system would at least provide pay differentials to attract the best teachers to the neediest school districts and afford incentives for teachers to take jobs where instructional help is in short supply. The judge was not particularly sympathetic to suggestions that teacher pay be tied to student test scores, but he was not averse to rewarding teachers for academic growth in their pupils.

The judge found wide disparities from school district to school district in the identification of students in need of special education, attributing the chaotic situation to a lack of state standards for identifying specific disabilities and methods of dealing with them. He was also critical of irrational interpretations of federal disabilities law that lead many school districts to spend vast sums to place multiply-disabled children in mainstream classrooms when there is no prospect of educating them. The judge ordered the state to submit a plan that focuses efforts on those disabled students who can profit from some form of elementary and secondary education. The judge conceded that the state may have a duty to serve multiply-disabled children, but suggested it rethink whether local school districts should pick up the tab using local school money.

The state is appealing the judge’s decision as a judicial intrusion into what is a legislative function. This sort of intrusion is not without precedent in Connecticut, but the conditions cited by this judge might not exist if the legislative branch had paid any heed to past intrusions into state education policy. There’s a veiled threat in the decision to start voiding unconstitutional laws if the legislature fails to act, but that threat probably won’t bring about any sort of consensus among legislators, who have digested the lessons of the past and learned not to take judges’ rants very seriously. ┬áIf his reasoning holds up on appeal, this judge may have occasion to crack down with something a bit more substantial than critical rhetoric.