Tuesday, April 22, 2008

High court to hear arguments on legality of school funding

By Elizabeth Benton
Register Staff
— Yale law students will argue before the state Supreme Court today TUESDAYagainst what they claim to be a state educational funding system that unconstitutionally denies students in poorer municipalities “suitable and substantially equal educational opportunities.”
On Nov. 22, 2005, 15 Connecticut families and the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding filed suit against numerous state parties, including Gov. M. Jodi Rell and the state Board of Education, asking the court to declare the current education funding system unconstitutional.
“The level of resources provided by the state’s education funding scheme is arbitrary and not related to the actual costs of providing a suitable education. By failing to maintain an educational system that provides children with suitable and substantially equal opportunities, the state is violating plaintiffs’ constitutional rights,” the suit charges.
State officials however deny the state underfunds local schools.
“The issue is the state’s ability to provide more than it already does,” said state Department of Education spokesman Tom Murphy. “The state is a partner in financing public education. The issue is affordability, and that’s where the tension continues to be.”
Rell spokesman Rich Harris contends Rell, “has done more to equalize and improve state funding and the fairness of state funding for education than anyone since the (Educational Cost Sharing) formula has been created. Not only did the money go up, but the accountability standards went up.”
Plaintiffs hail from the state’s urban and poorer regions including New Haven, Bridgeport, Hartford, East Hartford, New Britain, Plainfield, and Windham, where access to modern and adequate libraries, textbooks, special needs services, highly qualified teachers, appropriate class sizes and extracurricular activities is limited, the suit claims.
In New Britain’s Lincoln Elementary School in 2003-04, for instance, 50 percent of kindergarten students attended preschool, compared to the state average of 63 percent. Only 68 percent of the school’s teachers hold master’s degrees, compared to the state’s average of 80 percent.
In Danbury’s South Street Elementary School, 60 percent of students attended preschool. While kindergarten through sixth grade schools statewide provide an average of 985 hours of instruction, in 2003 South Street provided only 966, the suit charges.
Inadequate and unequal educational opportunities have resulted in lower test scores and graduation rates in under funded districts. Connecticut has the widest achievement gap nationwide between its poor and more affluent students.At the core of the claim is the allegation that the state’s school funding mechanism shortchanges poorer districts and must be changed.
Connecticut public schools are primarily funded through local property taxes and through the state’s Educational Cost Sharing grants, allocated to municipalities annually.
Along with mayors and legislators throughout Connecticut, Shelton Mayor and CCJEF President Mark Lauretti is wrestling with his city budget.
“Despite spending nearly two-thirds of our local budget on the schools, our effort is quite simply not enough to meet the educational challenges we face in turning out a youth workforce that can successfully compete in the global economy,” he said.
In September 2007 a Hartford Superior Court judge ruled against the plaintiffs on three of four counts in the case, finding there was no constitutional right to “suitable educational opportunities.” The third count, pertaining to rights to equal education opportunities, is pending.
The appeal will be argued by Yale law students Neil Weare and David Noah before the state Supreme Court at 10 a.m. today. TUESDAYA decision is expected this summer.
Elizabeth Benton can be reached at 789-5714 or at ebenton@nhregister.com.

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