In what some experts are calling an unprecedented decision, a judge has ruled that Connecticut must overhaul how it funds education to correct profound inequities in student outcomes.
Declaring the state's current spending plan "irrational," "whimsical," and lacking in transparency, Judge Thomas Moukawsher of the State Superior Court in Hartford said Connecticut was failing its poorest students. Current spending policies "lack real and visible links to things known to meet children's needs," he wrote.
Moukawsher ruled that state policymakers must now craft "rational" policies to close the achievement gaps. "The court will judge the state's solutions, and if they meet the standards described in this decision, uphold them," he concluded.
At more than $10,000 per student, Connecticut spends more than most states on education, and, Moukawsher conceded, has in the past spent even more than the statewide average in its poorest school districts (Connecticut in fact has the highest per-capita income in the nation).
But Moukawsher pointed to educational outcomes among poor and minority students as a sign that this spending was being carried out without any rhyme or reason. For instance, as of 2013, nearly half of Connecticut's black pupils and 44% of Latino ones were found to be below "proficient" in math, compared with just 11% for white students. And while many poor districts had high graduation rates, the percentages of students deemed SAT, college, and career ready were grossly inadequate.
The current system has "destroyed the meaning of high school graduation" by leaving students with little ability to gainfully read, write or do math, he said.
"An East Hartford high school science teacher testified that 80% of her students do not test at grade level," Moukawsher wrote. "Many of them, she said, required explanations of common words like 'faucet' and 'sink.'"
Moukawsher placed the blame for such disparities squarely on state policymakers, as opposed to local boards of education, which the state had argued were responsible for educational outcomes.
"The state knows it can't keep up the pretense that local schools are local problems, but it seems numb to the logical implications," Moukawsher said.
And as it continues to navigate a budget crisis, the state has now seen “rich schools robbing millions of dollars from poor schools,” with the possibility funds could be moved “away from starving cities to rich suburbs for no good reason."
Connecticut is one of several states that have had their education spending subject to judicial review in recent years. Most recently, the Kansas State Supreme Court ruled that the state was underfunding predominantly minority school districts, creating "intolerable" inequities in educational outcomes.
Alan Rupe, a Wichita-based lawyer who argued on behalf of reform groups in the Kansas case, said he found the Connecticut ruling surprising in its forthrightness.
"The trial court was just absolutely unimpressed with the way folks in charge of Connecticut education had figured out how to spend the money they raised," he told Fusion.
William S. Koski, a professor of law and education at Stanford University, told the New York Times that the scope of the Connecticut ruling was “highly unusual,” noting that most cases are more often about whether there is an adequate level of funding, as in Kansas.
“This is a game changer,” Joseph P. Ganim, the mayor of Bridgeport, Conn., one of the state’s poorest and lowest-performing school districts, told the Times. “It’s an indictment of the application of the system, and of the system itself.”
Rob covers business, economics and the environment for Fusion. He previously worked at Business Insider. He grew up in Chicago.