From the Crow's Nest / Ed Chrostowski
Educational rights hinge on opportunity, court says
There's something far more substantive than a quibble over semantics in the Connecticut Supreme Court's ruling that public school education must be "adequate."
How is "adequate" to be defined? Is it enough for all school districts to provide the basics -- that is, buildings and teachers? What level of quality must be reached before educational offerings can be described as adequate? By whom?
In its mandates for free elementary and secondary schools, the State Constitution does not prescribe any qualitative standards, leaving local districts with broad leeway in their compliance. And in a decision on a 2005 lawsuit, the Waterbury Superior Court rejected a plaintiff's allegation that the right to education was being nullified by the inadequacy of what was offered in some districts. The lower court did refrain, however, from commenting on what would be satisfactory and suitable in meeting the terms of the Constitution.
Last week, the State's Supreme Court voted 4-3 to reverse the lower court's decision, ruling in effect that the quality of education must be "adequate" to meet the Constitutional stipulation.
Skeptics, including the State's own attorneys, argue that adequacy would be a subjective determination. The same program might be deemed up to par, even exemplary, in some places and dismally inferior in others. Observers will differ in assessing adequacy and merit. The Constitution deliberately avoided the debate over semantics that would inevitably arise if any one adjective was used to describe the conditions in education that would meet requirements, attorneys declared. Nor, they said, should the court try to do so now.
Licensing teachers, prescribing 180-day school years, outlining minimum curriculum requirements and providing financial assistance for building programs and classroom operations are enough to meet the State's Constitutional obligations, according to the lawyers.
School districts are thus left with considerable discretion. Some have the resources to provide optimum facilities, extended curricula and larger faculties and support personnel, for example. Others, either because they lack the resources or the will, "make do" with inferior laboratories, libraries and programs in sports, music and the arts. Within a few miles of each other in Fairfield County there are school systems that are nothing short of excellent while and others struggle with tattered and outdated textbooks.
There is, in short, a great disparity in educational opportunities, gaps wide enough to prompt the Supreme Court to observe that the principal of adequacy is inherent in the Constitutional guarantees of education. Certainly the availability of that right differs greatly for students in Bridgeport with its low tax-base and those in affluent suburbia.
Therein lies the heart of the matter. Funding public schools primarily through property taxes is a flawed system. Nor has the complicated State aid formula, purporting to allot higher grants to needier towns and cities, managed to ease, let alone equalize, local property tax burdens for education, especially now when funds are being cut back in Connecticut's unprecedented financial crisis.
At least the Supreme Court's ruling in support of the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education recognizes that funding public schools primarily through local property taxes burdens home-owners everywhere, in wealthy and in poor towns alike. Further, this is an exhaustible resource that one day will not be capable of supporting adequate, however that is defined, education anywhere.
With the problem thus defined, the next step is for the State Legislature to devise a system for more equitable distribution of sufficient funding of public education in municipalities all across Connecticut. It probably would require complete revamping of the way taxes are levied by the State and by its towns and cities.
That some communities are willing and able to do more for their schools is a fact of life, a fact that deserves commendation. But it is true also that there are others that also would like to do more but, given their own already soaring taxes, can't. Yet, the Constitution promises all the right to education, a right that cannot be fulfilled if great disparity in accessible opportunities persist.
Yet, with so many socio-economic factors also at play, equality in educational opportunity will likely continue to be elusive. And, given the legislature's penchant for lethargy, so will action by the State government.