HARTFORD, Conn (Legal Newsline) -- In a decision that could result in the restructuring of the public education system in Connecticut and have a ripple effect in educational lawsuits across the nation, a judge has ordered the state to completely revamp its educational system.
The Sept. 7 decision by Judge Thomas Moukawsher of the State Superior Court in Hartford was a response to a lawsuit filed more than a decade ago filed by the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding (CCJEF) and individual students and their parents.
The lawsuit argued that the state of Connecticut was bilking the poorest districts when it came to school funding and programming, and that the students have a constitutional right to adequate education.
The 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) report shows that low-income students in 40 other states performed better academically than indigent students in Connecticut.
Evidence during the decade-long legal conflict alleged serious flaws in the delivery of scholastic opportunities to a significant number of the state’s students.
The case was led by a pro bono team of litigators from Debevoise & Plimpton, while David Rosen & Associates PC and the Yale Law School Education Adequacy Project Clinic served as co-counsel.
According to Debevoise partner and CCJEF’s lead attorney Joe Moodhe, the genesis of the lawsuit began with Yale University students’ research on Connecticut’s school system.
“The case initially was, to their tremendous credit, initiated by the Yale Law School Clinic, which has been our partner on this case with the support of local attorneys in Connecticut," Moodhe told Legal Newsline.
"Those students primarily were the drivers of that case, together with their local counsel. Two of the students, in fact, argued the case to the Connecticut Supreme Court in 2008, which resulted in the reversal of the trial court’s dismissal, a decision that concluded there was a right to adequate education in the state under its constitution.”
Moodhe said that this case was one of few that took a holistic view of the educational system in the context of constitutional rights.
“(It didn't) just focus on funding or one particular aspect of funding," he said. "This decision stands out for the breadth of its analysis of the issues underlying the constitutional right to an education founded in state constitutions.”
Moodhe believes this case has implications for other states in how they will review and approach their analyses of state deficiencies in education in the future.
“It will spur litigants in other states to look at educational policies and standards adopted, as well as funding issues, and it will be presented as evidence that goes beyond mere funding issues, and courts will be forced to respond,” Moodhe said.
Judge Moukawsher wrote in his ruling, “Children have a judicially enforceable right to first principles governing our schools that are reasoned, substantial and verifiably connected to teaching.”
Moukawsher noted that “To be constitutional, the state's chief education policies do not have to be richly funded, but they must at least be rational, substantial and verifiable. The state is responsible for the condition of our schools: Its duty to educate is non-delegable. The way educators are hired, fired, paid and evaluated isn't sensibly linked to its value in teaching children. The next job [of the state] is to craft remedies.”
The order puts the burden of resolution solely on the office of Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen. Within 180 days, it is required to produce plans and new policies to cure the alleged constitutionally deficient areas, including:
-The relationship between the state and local government in education;
-An educational aid formula;
-A definition of elementary and secondary education;
-Standards for hiring, firing, evaluating and paying education professionals; and
-Funding, identification and educational services standards for special education.
After receipt of the state’s proposal, the plaintiffs will have 60 days to submit comments to the court.
“The judge’s approach in the order was consistent, in his view that the court has a very specific mandate to determine whether a constitutional violation exists, but in terms of determining exactly what methods or policies that should be adopted in order to correct those deficiencies, the legislature together with the executive branch have a substantial role.” Moodhe said.
He believes the ruling ensured the judge didn’t overstep his perceived judicial bounds, leaving the state with as much latitude to come up with whatever it may determine is an appropriate response.
Moodhe expects a final decision to be issued sometime in the summer of 2017. He believes the judge will give weight to the plaintiffs' comments on the state’s proposal and give it careful thought to ensure it’s an appropriate solution before coming to a final decision.
An official spokesperson for the Jepsen's office told Legal Newsline, “Our office is reviewing the CCJEF decision and assessing available next steps with relevant stakeholders in state government."