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Connecticut to fight sweeping ruling that calls for overhauling public school funding

Connecticut to fight sweeping ruling that calls for overhauling public school funding
Students gather for an event last month at Cos Cob Elementary School in Greenwich, Conn. A judge has ordered the state to revamp how it funds public schools. (Chris Palermo / Associated Press)

Connecticut will appeal a controversial ruling by a judge that orders the Legislature to overhaul the way public education is funded and delivered in the state, from elementary to high school.

State Atty. Gen. George Jepsen said Thursday that the ruling represents a broad overreach of judicial authority.

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"This decision would wrest educational policy from the representative branches of state government, limit public education for some students with special needs, create additional municipal mandates concerning graduation and other standards, and alter the basic terms of educators' employment — and entrust all of those matters to the discretion of a single, unelected judge," Jepsen said in a statement Thursday.

Jepsen's announcement comes eight days after Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher issued his sweeping decision.

Moukawsher gave lawmakers and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's administration 180 days to devise a new funding formula for public schools, calling the current method arbitrary and irrational, and declaring that it shortchanges poor children.

He also directed the Legislature to devise a new way of evaluating and compensating teachers, principals and superintendents, as well as instituting a graduation test for high school seniors and revising the way special education services are delivered.

The much-anticipated decision was the culmination of an 11-year legal battle between the state and the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding, an alliance of municipalities, boards of education, teachers unions and education advocacy groups.

The coalition filed a lawsuit against then-Gov. M. Jodi Rell, alleging that the state's education cost-sharing formula violates the state constitution and places an unfair burden on local property taxes to support school spending.

Jepsen, whose office defended the state, said the ruling raises many legal questions. He is asking that the case be appealed directly to the state Supreme Court.

Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton, who is part of the coalition that brought the lawsuit, said he always believed the case would wind up before the Supreme Court. "We waited 11 years to get into court," he said. "We can wait a little longer for the Supremes to take it up."

Moukawsher's 90-page decision sent shock waves in the education world far beyond Connecticut.

It left state lawmakers wondering how to formulate a response to profoundly complex questions on a tight, three-month deadline.

"If this opinion were not appealed, a single unelected judge sitting at the Superior Court level would essentially become education czar for the state of Connecticut. That's not how our system of government is set up," said state Rep. Andy Fleischmann, a Democrat from West Hartford and co-chairman of the education committee.

The appeal states that because the ruling encompasses issues far beyond the school funding formula, the citizens of Connecticut need to have the confidence that the policy changes ordered by Moukawsher have been reviewed by the state's highest judicial authority.

However, Jepsen said his decision to appeal shouldn't be read as a signal that lawmakers can kick the problems plaguing public education down the road.

He said the ruling "identified profound educational challenges that remain and must continue to receive serious and sustained attention — and action — at every level of government. Nothing about this appeal prevents policymakers from immediately addressing those challenges, and I urge them to do so without delay."

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Malloy agreed, urging lawmakers to begin tackling the issues laid out by Moukawsher well before the case lands at the Supreme Court.

Altimari writes for the Hartford Courant.

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