School funding reform back in lawmakers’ hands

January 20, 2018 GMT

When she testified in a Hartford courtroom nearly two years ago, Elizabeth Capasso, a Bridgeport teacher, described days when her middle school students were so upset about a neighborhood shooting that class time was spent calming nerves rather than teaching math.

Today things are worse.

Budget cuts to the school district forced by flat state funding have cost Tisdale School a social worker and a school psychologist. The guidance counselor’s schedule has been slashed, along with access to literacy and math coaches. Kindergarten aides are gone, too.

Like many, Capasso pinned her hopes on a decade-long school funding case known as Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding v. Rell.

Their hopes were raised when Hartford Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher ruled 18 months ago that while the state was spending enough on education, its distribution of funding was unconstitutional.

On Wednesday, the State Supreme Court reversed that decision on a 4-3 vote, saying the Legislature, not the court, is responsible for directing how school funding is divided.

“I respectfully disagree with with the court” Capasso said this week. “It is the state’s obligation to provide an equitable public education for all students. This ruling will only create further needs at Tisdale School, making it more difficult for our students to succeed in their academics.”

Others say if the Legislature was the answer, lawmakers would have created a more equitable funding system long ago.

Instead, in the existing system Bridgeport students get $4,952 less per pupil than Hartford students.

“No one wants to take responsibility for our children’s future,” Jessica Martinez, a freshman member on the Bridgeport Board of Education. “We have been failing them for so long.”

Without a court case, Martinez expects the state will not feel an obligation to do anything soon.

“We are in a bad place,” she said.

No free pass

Others say the decision, though disappointing, is not license for lawmakers to do nothing.

“All the court was saying is that they can’t legislate the will of politicians to do the right thing,” Danbury Schools Superintendent Sal Pascarella said.

Pascarella, who spent multiple days on the stand before Moukawsher, said the effort was not in vain.

“It brought a lot of warts to the surface,” he said, adding creating a more equitable system might take courage, but could be done.

“I will put money on the goodness of our politicians to do the right thing.” Pascarella said.

Lawmakers and the governor offered the same message after the decision, pledging not to back down from a school funding reform effort that began last year in the midst of a state budget crisis.

“Every child in Connecticut deserves a first-class education,” Senate President Pro Tempore Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, said. “Our job will not be complete until we eliminate the inequities inherent our educational system and ensure that children in every city and every town across Connecticut receive a fair shot at academic success.”

Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, said that regardless of the state high court decision, educating kids — particularly the most vulnerable ones — remains a top priority.

“It is why I was proud to have successfully led the fight ... to include education funding reform in the recently passed bipartisan budget,” Duff said.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who was on the plaintiff side of the case as Stamford’s mayor when the CCJEF suit began in 2005, vowed that the urgency to put dollars where they are needed will not diminish.

“While we made some progress last session in establishing a more predictable and transparent funding formula, we haven’t gone far enough,” Malloy said.

The state’s plan is to gradually redistribute funds. Bridgeport is supposed to get a $1 million increase in funding in the 2018-19 fiscal year. But there is no guarantee. And $1 million is far less than the $16 million local school officials say is needed to maintain current services.

Alternative measures

Others who say the high court decision was the right one hope the focus can shift to student outcomes.

“I am not surprised by the decision, because the argument doesn’t hold any longer,” said state Rep. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, co-chair of the legislature’s Education Committee. “There has been a tremendous focus on districts that don’t do as well as others. They get a great deal more.”

Some suburban communities, Boucher added, are literally self-funding their schools.

“How those cities manage those funds, and the outcomes, one can debate,” Boucher said.

Mike Griffith, a consultant for the Education Commission of the States, said advocates for increased school funding may have lost a popular tool — a court challenge — but not necessarily the war.

“No one has done a lot of good research about what happens after you lose these lawsuits,” Griffith said. “Even if the courts would have come down on the sides of the districts, that would have forced the state to make changes, but not overnight.”

Advocates can turn to more traditional political channels, he said.

Fran Rabinowitz, who was interim superintendent of Bridgeport Public Schools when she testified during the trial case, agreed.

‘Now we will need to be relentless in our work with the Legislature to ensure that every child has an equitable educational opportunity,’ said Rabinowitz, now executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents. “I do believe that many legislators see the educational equity goal as paramount to their work.”

Jennifer Alexander, chief executive officer of the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now, an educational advocacy group, said lawmakers need to be shown that doing right by Connecticut children will give them what they want: economic renewal in the state.

Jackie Simmons, a principal at Roosevelt School in Bridgeport who also testified during the trial, said she worries the convincing won’t come soon enough.

“I appreciate that this is a complex web,” Simmons said. “But the bottom line is that our most disadvantaged children continue to be at a disadvantage ... Asking to be able to support and educate our children with enough qualified individuals isn’t an unreasonable request.”