Has a Trial Judge Single-Handedly Upended a State’s Entire Public Education System?

Written by: Dirk Zuschlag

Primary Source:  Green & Write, October 7, 2016

How often does a state judge’s ruling in a decade-old case garner front-page coverage in the New York Times? How often is that followed by a Times news analysis, a follow-up article, and the posting of all 254 pages of opinion and appendices?

An Unassuming Case with a Surprising Result

On September 7, 2016, following 60 trial days which included the introduction of 826 exhibits, the testimony of over 50 witnesses (including nearly 20 experts), and the filing of thousands of pages of briefs, Connecticut Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher issued his final decision in Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding (CCJEF) v. Rell. CCJEF started the case in 2005 to challenge Connecticut’s school finance system, which like so many nationwide has produced large disparities in funding between districts. Since the plaintiff’s legal theory rested on the education and equal protection clauses of the state constitution, the case joined a larger set of past and ongoing lawsuits concerning whether individual states were providing adequate education funding. CCJEF had already produced one Connecticut Supreme Court decision, and while it had no majority opinion, four of seven justices agreed that the state constitution guarantees students the right to adequate educational opportunities. The legal meaning of “adequate,” however, was left for the trial court to ascertain.

Judge Moukawsher’s opinion first sets forth his understanding of the relevant legal standard. Then, in contrast to similar cases in Connecticut and elsewhere, the trial court not only deems the state’s funding system unconstitutional, but also rules that whole swaths of state education policy are constitutionally void as well (see here for both the text of the decision and for a thorough summary of it). The trial court concedes that it cannot order an absolute level of funding above the constitutionally-required minimum, which the state is already exceeding, and it also rejects the plaintiffs’ equal protection claim. Yet the ruling nonetheless holds “beyond a reasonable doubt” that in five major education policy areas, the state’s education system is “not rationally, substantially, or verifiably connected” to educational opportunities. These areas are: a failure to intervene directly in under-performing schools; an educational aid formula that unfairly allocates funds across all districts; the “definitions” of the content of an elementary education (including grade-level skills) and secondary education (including graduation requirements); the standards for hiring, firing, evaluating, and paying educational professionals; and the funding, identification, and educational services standards for special education.

Although the court’s decision emphasizes the state’s non-delegable power over public education, especially given the very large gaps in inputs and in outcomes among student populations, its rulings are far more sweeping, apparently negating otherwise broadly applicable state-wide law. Retaining jurisdiction to approve, monitor and enforce a remedy, the trial judge gave the state 180 days to submit its proposed policy changes and implementation schedules.

As Education Week blogger Daarel Burnette II put it, the CCJEF decision “shocked even the plaintiffs for its breadth, language, and demand that the state essentially make over its entire approach to educating its students within the next 180 days.” (For a similar local media reaction, see here.) To be sure, the trial court’s decision on its face represents an unexpected, even alarming, departure from the usual run of school finance litigation. It could serve as a potentially potent legal vehicle for far more judicially mandated changes in state education policies.

Caution Warrantedphoto-courtesy-of-google-images

The plaintiff coalition hailed the decision as a “landmark victory” for Connecticut students, one with “potential ramifications in educational jurisprudence across the country.” Still, a heavy dose of caution, if not outright skepticism, is in order, for the very features that make the trial court’s decision so newsworthy may also make it more vulnerable to reversal.

  • It’s not over ’til it’s over: The most obvious reason for caution is that the state supreme court has already accepted the state’s expedited appeal and stopped the implementation of the trial court’s ruling. Beyond the trial court’s novel legal standard and analysis, the state’s appeal asserts several claims grounded in strong constitutional values and legitimate institutional interests. Thus, the state easily frames the trial court’s decision as an egregious judicial overreach. Particularly in light of its prior ruling, the supreme court may be unlikely to risk a constitutional confrontation with its co-equal branches, let alone its political legitimacy with the public.
  • The devil’s in the details: Given the complexity of the school finance system, even if the supreme court upholds the lower court’s decision, any court undertaking the supervision of statewide public education faces insuperable practical challenges. Courts notoriously lack the necessary capacity, and their legal, political, and policy tools are ill-suited to the role of super-legislature. How is the court to know what the “rational” policies actually are when so many policies interact with each other, have unintended consequences, and vary in the course of implementation?
  • Be careful what you wish for: Even if the court could fashion a remedy, it cannot possibly please all the stakeholders everywhere in the state. Some of those who “won” in the trial court may later be dismayed in how a legally concentrated and politically unaccountable authority oversees the making and implementation of particular policies. Indeed, almost immediately, disagreements within the plaintiff coalition itself were reported (see here and here).
  • Win the battle, lose the war: Even when plaintiffs win an ordinary school finance case, litigation often takes on an indefinite life of its own as a war of attrition which heavily taxes the attention, resources and will of all sides. The inevitable and probably continual disruption to and conflict over education governance and policies, coupled with loss of highly valued local control, seem guaranteed to engender substantial institutional and popular backlash. It is difficult to envision how students could benefit in any such scenario.

Legally, then, the plaintiffs’ victory may prove pyric at best. But it may end up serving more positive political than legal purposes. Perhaps, for example, the trial court’s decision will galvanize public demand for meaningful reform. Perhaps the state legislature will take the education reform initiative to forestall the threat of further judicial action. Perhaps the state will find a politically acceptable way to settle the case. Any of these outcomes might influence education reform in other states. Or maybe in the end it is what the opinion symbolizes that will resonate, what the Times’ Kate Zernike called “a cry from the heart on the failings of American public education.”

We’ll all just have to stay tuned—even if the New York Times doesn’t.

Contact Dirk: zuschla2@msu.edu

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Dirk Zuschlag is a second-year education policy doctoral student. His research interests involve the interaction of teacher professionalism and accountability policies. Prior to entering MSU, Dirk taught public high school social studies for sixteen years and served as a learning coach and staff developer. He also spent thirteen years practicing law earlier in his career. He has a J.D. and an M.A. in Education from the University of Michigan, as well as a B.A. from Duke University.