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CCEJF v. Rell: Where Do We Stand?

On September 7, 2016, Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher issued a 255-page Memorandum of Decision in Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding, Inc. v. Rell, a case that has been pending for more than 10 years. The decision held that the State provides a constitutionally acceptable amount of funding for education, but the distribution of the funding is irrational and contributes to disparate outcomes for rich and poor districts in Connecticut.

The Court ordered the State to submit proposed reforms within 180 days on:

  • 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.

Each reflects an area in which the Court held the State’s educational policies were unconstitutional because they were not “rationally, substantially, and verifiably” linked to teaching children and thus did not pass muster under the State Constitution. Judge Moukawsher’s decision effectively orders an overhaul to Connecticut’s education system affecting matters from labor relations with teachers to what it means to earn a “credit” toward graduation.

The State has appealed the ruling to the Connecticut Supreme Court, which has agreed to hear the case. The State contends that the standard that educational policies must be “rationally, substantially, and verifiably” linked to teaching children is “entirely made up and has the effect of giving the judiciary broad control over educational policy.” The State also contends that it cannot present the plans ordered by the Court because only the legislature has the authority to address such issues and no executive-branch entity has the authority to speak for the legislature.

The Connecticut Supreme Court agreed to the State’s request for a stay of Judge Moukawsher’s order pending the appeal. This means that the 180-day requirement for proposed reforms is held in abeyance until the Connecticut Supreme Court decides the case. Based on the briefing schedule, a decision should not be expected until late 2017 at the earliest.

Since the issues presented in this litigation addressed disparities allegedly created at the State level, local and regional boards of education are not compelled to take any action as a result of this ruling. Even if the order ultimately goes into effect, the State (most likely through the legislature) will need to act before any impact is felt at the local level. This does not mean that the General Assembly cannot take action sooner to address the issues identified by Judge Moukawsher. Likewise, even if the Connecticut Supreme Court sides with the State and finds the State’s educational policy constitutional, Judge Moukawsher’s scathing indictment of how the General Assembly addresses educational policy (particularly as it relates to allocation of funding) may lead to legislative soul-searching and a particular interest in addressing the issues identified in the decision.

Right now, boards of education should wait and see what happens with this appeal. The decision has potentially monumental implications for the future of education in Connecticut. It is clear that change is coming, but the form that change will take remains unclear.