[Sept. 2016 News] Connecticut calls for reevaluation of state education system and funding

By Channing Smith ’17 Creative Chief and Tia Pogue ’17

Connecticut declared on Sept. 15 that it would appeal the Sept. 7 ruling of an educational funding case by the State Superior Court. The case attempted to reexamine the school system of a state that harbors the highest education gap in the nation.

Having had experience teaching at both Staples and Central High in Bridgeport, Sarah Krikorian voices her excitement that this issue has finally been acknowledged.

“The people need to know how hard some of these teachers and students work to show the world what they can do,” Krikorian said.  

The original ruling ordered the state to overhaul its current school system— which Judge Moukawsher, who read the over-90 page ruling, claims “has left rich school districts to flourish and poor school districts to flounder.”

It also ordered the state to provide plans to improve areas ranging from teacher accountability measures to school funding—but with a strict deadline of 180 days.

The decision to appeal marks the continuation of an 11-year battle between the state and the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Educational Funding. The battle began when the nonprofit filed a lawsuit against the then-governor, Jodi Rell, claiming that Connecticut schools’ budget distribution formula is unconstitutional and underfunded. The coalition cites that Connecticut’s heavy reliance on the district property taxes for school funding puts lower income school districts at an automatic disadvantage, leading to inequities in the quality of education throughout the state.

Christie Barcelona ’10 who now teaches in Bridgeport, believes this practice of allocating funds derived primarily from property taxes is unfair and makes kids “a product of their environment.”

“This tax-based education system is not working for everybody,” Barcelona said. “I don’t feel that it is fair for my students to not have the same opportunities as the students 15 minutes down the road.”

However, Connecticut Attorney General George Jepson criticized the ruling for “wresting educational policy from the representative branches of state government[…]and entrusting those matters to the discretion of a single, unelected judge.” Others, such as President Sheila Cohen of the Connecticut Education Association, an organization that represents 43,000 teachers, criticized the ruling as being too “broad and overreaching.” The ruling has been further criticized for requiring such immense planning and changes within such a short time period.

One of the biggest controversies is that the ruling does not directly require the state to provide more school funding, what Cohen considers “the heart of the CCJEF v. Rell lawsuit.” The state funding formula was underfunded by $738 million in 2015. However, the Westport public schools superintendent, Colleen Palmer, explains that while the state is trying to fund its schools, “it has anticipated next year for a deficit of over a billion dollars. So, we don’t have piles of cash sitting around.”

While the focus of the original lawsuit may have been school funding, one common point of agreement is that more money will not solve every problem.

Jeffrey Villar, executive director of the Connecticut Council for Education Reform, points out that revamping Connecticut’s school system stretches far beyond rationalizing the distribution of funding—it also requires a revamping of the attitudes in and towards lower income schools.

“All [students are] innately capable- but we send messages to some children saying, ‘We don’t expect much from you,’ then we say to other children, ‘You could be the next supreme court justice,’” Villar says.

Krikorian echoes this belief of equalizing not only funding, but expectations.

“In each district, in different ways, students needed to know they mattered,” Krikorian says of her experience both in Westport and Bridgeport.