November 4, 2005
By ROBERT A. FRAHM And STEPHANIE SUMMERS, Courant Staff Writers
A coalition of municipal officials and educators plans to go
to court this month seeking to force Connecticut to dramatically
increase spending on education and revamp the way it pays for
The group says it will file a lawsuit in Superior Court in Hartford
Nov. 22, nearly three decades after another suit, Horton vs.
Meskill, radically altered Connecticut's school finance system.
The proposed lawsuit comes as Gov. M. Jodi Rell is about to
convene a task force to review Connecticut's 15-year-old school
funding system, a complicated formula known as the Education
Cost Sharing grant, which will distribute more than $1.6 billion
to cities and towns this year.
The Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding hopes
the lawsuit will pressure the state to revise a school funding
formula it regards as inadequate. The suit will contend that
the formula has driven up local property taxes in many communities
and forced towns to cut back on everything from police services
to street repairs.
"The state continues to underfund education. We know what
the level [of support] should be," said Hartford Mayor Eddie
A. Perez, the coalition's vice president.
Fifteen years ago, the state paid nearly 46 percent of the cost
of running public schools, but that figure dropped to about 38
percent by 2003-04.
The coalition of mayors and other officials issued a study earlier
this year projecting that the state would have to spend as much
as $2 billion a year more to bring students up to the federal
government's academic standards.
Hartford alone comes up more than $100 million short of a final
target, the study said.
"All that shows is how far behind we are as a state," Perez
The lawsuit is certain to raise concerns among state officials
about the potential cost of a court ruling.
"I had assumed all along the mayors of large cities ...
would do everything in their power to strap [state] taxpayers
with an additional billion-dollar burden," said state Sen.
Thomas J. Herlihy, R-Avon, and a member of the legislature's
"We're all interested in doing as much as we can for schools," he
said, "but throwing another billion dollars at schools when
there is zero accountability for results seems to me to be the
wrong way to go."
Similar school funding lawsuits exist in various stages in 23
other states, said Molly A. Hunter, an official with the Campaign
for Fiscal Equity, a New York City-based advocacy group that
monitors school funding cases.
The advocacy group filed its own lawsuit, which resulted in
a court ruling earlier this year ordering New York state to spend
an extra $5.6 billion a year on New York City schools. The state
is appealing the order.
In Kansas, lawmakers approved a $148 million school spending
increase earlier this year in response to a state Supreme Court
order to boost education funding.
While many school finance lawsuits in the 1970s and '80s focused
on inequity among school districts, much of the litigation now
revolves around whether states provide schools adequate funding
to meet demands such as new standards under the federal No Child
Left Behind Act.
In Connecticut, the coalition's
proposed suit seeks an "adequacy
formula" that takes into account each district's particular
needs, including the proportion of children who live in poverty,
do not speak English or have disabilities, said Robert A. Solomon,
a Yale University law professor who heads a team preparing the
Solomon said the 60-plus-page
lawsuit will include two plaintiffs from rural towns, two from
suburbs and two from cities. "If
you accept the notion that the state is responsible for equal
education, it affects every town," he said. "If you
accept the notion that kids are not performing at a proficiency
standard, it affects every town."
The Yale team is providing free legal services to the coalition.
An earlier school finance lawsuit against the state was filed
in 1998, but dropped two years ago because of mounting legal
According to the study commissioned by the coalition, 145 of
the state's 166 school districts come up short of a recommended
funding target, while 91 fail to meet even a minimum starting
point. In Hartford, for example, schools would have to spend
$16,720 a pupil to meet the long-range goals of No Child Left
Behind, a 38 percent increase over the $12,150 spent per student
a year ago, the report said. Manchester would require $13,974
a student and Meriden $14,694 - increases of 43 and 44 percent,
Coalition representatives already have been in discussions with
the governor and legislature and have said they hope the issue
can be settled without a court order.
"If anything, I hope [the suit] is the carrot that makes
things happen," said Manchester Mayor Stephen T. Cassano,
the coalition's executive director. "We can withdraw the
suit at any time. Our immediate goal is to work with the governor's
office and the legislature."
Cassano is expected to be given a spot on the governor's task
force on school finance, said Judd Everhart, a spokesman for
Rell. The governor will send out letters next week announcing
appointments to the task force, Everhart said.
Connecticut's school funding formula underwent a major change
after the state Supreme Court in 1977 ordered the state, in the
Horton vs. Meskill case, to close a large funding gap between
the state's wealthiest and poorest communities.
The case redistributed state money, sending millions of dollars
more to the state's poorest cities.
The legislature revised the school aid formula with the introduction
of the Education Cost Sharing grant in 1989, but lawmakers have
imposed limits on the formula under the strain of tight state
Those limits have prevented the formula from working as intended
and could be a key piece of the legal argument challenging the
current school finance system, said Wesley Horton, the lawyer
who filed the Horton vs. Meskill case.
Horton, who has no connection
to the new coalition, said the coalition's case will be more
subtle than the earlier case because "there
is not the gross disparity [among towns] you had in the 1970s."
He said he believes a judge
would be reluctant to tamper directly with the formula. But,
he said, "once the legislature has
created a formula, you've got to let it work."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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