The Connecticut Supreme Court was one of the first of the state high courts, along with California’s and New Jersey’s, to invalidate a state education finance system, in Horton v. Meskill, 376 A.2d 359 (1977). The court found that the Connecticut Constitution requires the state to “provide a substantially equal educational opportunity” and declared the existing system unconstitutional because it was based primarily on local property taxes with no significant equalizing state support and, therefore, generated large per-pupil spending disparities.

In response, the legislature enacted a percentage equalizing formula and a local minimum expenditure requirement. Although the Horton decision apparently reduced the disparity in educational expenditures among school districts, two decades later, the court was faced with a related case, Sheff v. O’Neill, 678 A.2d 1267 (1996), 678 A.2d 1267 (1996), in which plaintiffs argued that students in Hartford were not receiving a minimally adequate education under the state constitution. The Connecticut Supreme Court finessed the adequacy claim and, instead, issued a path-breaking decision which outlawed de facto racial segregation.

Desegregation Decision

In a decision which clearly deviated from U.S. Supreme Court precedents which have held that only intentional or de jure segregation is unconstitutional, the court read the Connecticut Constitution’s education clause together with a clause added in 1965 which specifically prohibited “segregation” to hold that racial segregation, whether or not it resulted from intentional state action deprived the plaintiff schoolchildren of their right to a substantially equal educational opportunity and required the state to take remedial measures. The Court deferred to the legislature to develop a remedy consistent with the Constitutional requirements. The legislature subsequently developed a remedy which called for additional spending on magnet schools, voluntary interdistrict transfer programs and interdistrict co-operative programs, but no re-drawing of district boundaries.

Dissatisfied with the rate of integration achieved by these methods, the plaintiffs returned to the Superior Court. In 2003, plaintiffs and the governor reached a temporary, four-year settlement in Sheff v. O’Neill, which, among other things, required the state to spend $45 million over four years to establish eight additional magnet schools in Hartford, and established targets for proportions of Hartford students who would “have educational experiences with reduced isolation.” The agreement was approved by the General Assembly and the trial court. In 2007, plaintiffs returned to Court, claiming that the defendants had failed to carry out their obligations under the stipulation.

Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding, Inc. (CCJEF) v. Rell

In late 2005, a coalition of plaintiffs filed a school funding suit which contained both “equity” and “adequacy” claims, Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding, Inc. (CCJEF) v. Rell. They asked the court to declare the state’s education finance system unconstitutional and order the state to create a system that provides “suitable and substantially equal educational opportunities” as required by the state constitution.

In September 2007, the Connecticut Superior Court dismissed plaintiffs’ adequacy claims, while permitting their equity claims to proceed to trial. In upholding equity claims in Horton, the Connecticut Supreme Court had held in 1977 that education is a fundamental right under the state constitution. The Connecticut Supreme Court also held that Article eighth § 1 of the Connecticut Constitution, which declares that “[t]here shall always be free public elementary and secondary schools in the state” creates an “affirmative constitutional obligation.” Sheff v. O’Neill, 238 Conn. 1, 25 (1996). Based on these precedents, plaintiffs alleged in their complaint that the “affirmative obligation” under Article eighth § 1 includes an obligation to prepare students to obtain gainful employment, participate fully in our democracy, advance to higher education, and meet state standards.

After almost two years of deliberation, the Connecticut Supreme Court held in March 2010 in Coalition for Justice in Education Funding, Inc v. Rell,  that Article eighth, § 1 of the State Constitution has a qualitative dimension that guarantees all students an adequate education. In doing so, the Court reversed the trial court’s dismissal of the adequacy claims in plaintiff’s complaint and sent the case back for a trial to determine whether the state’s educational resources and standards have, in fact, provided public school students with constitutionally suitable educational opportunities.

Although a majority of the justices agreed on the need to reverse the lower court’s ruling, they differed in their interpretation of the constitutional standard that should be applied. A plurality of three judges stated that the constitution guarantees Connecticut’s public school students “an education suitable to give them the opportunity to be responsible citizens able to participate fully in democratic institutions, such as jury service and voting… [and] to progress to institutions of higher education, or to attain productive employment and otherwise contribute to the state’s economy.” In reaching this conclusion, the plurality said that it was of “paramount importance” to review the decisions of sister states. The emphasis on preparing students to be capable civic participants and competitive workers is, in fact, a virtual consensus holding of all of the state courts that have specifically addressed this issue.

The plurality relied heavily on the ruling of the New York Court of Appeals in CFE v. State of New York, 801 N.E. 2d 326 ( 2003) and adopted the list of “essential” components of a constitutionally adequate education articulated by the New York Court. These include minimally adequate physical facilities and classrooms, instrumentalities of learning such as reasonably current textbooks, reasonably up to date basic curricula such as reading, writing, mathematics, science and social studies, and “sufficient personnel adequately trained to teach those subject areas.”

In a strongly-worded 89 page decision issued in September, 2016, after an extensive trial, Superior Court Judge Thomas G. Moukawsher held that major components of Connecticut’s K-12 education system were so “irrational” that they were denying students, especially those in low wealth districts, their constitutional right to an adequate education. Setting aside the state’s arguments concerning the importance of local control, the Court held that the state had a “direct duty” to ensure that statewide education standards are substantive, rational and enforced. Judge Moukawsher acknowledged that on average Connecticut students do exceptionally well on standardized tests, but he alluded to the “flaw of averages” and cited numerous “alarming” statistics about how poorly students are doing in 30 of the state’s 169 municipalities where schools serving the poorest of Connecticut’s students are concentrated.

The Court adopted a narrow standard for defining adequacy, based on the concurring opinion that was the swing vote in the 2010 Connecticut Supreme Court’s decision on the motion to dismiss. In that opinion, Justice Palmer had held that he would not find a constitutional violation unless the state’s program “is so lacking as to be unreasonable by any fair or objective standard.”

Using this “rationality standard,” Judge Moukawsher held that Connecticut’s current school funding formula, its academic content standards and graduation requirements, its teacher evaluation and compensation systems and its program for special education were all irrational and needed to be substantially revised. His emphasis on substantive education reform and accountability requirements rather than cost analyses and the need for additional funding, provides a striking contrast to the manner in which most other state courts have dealt with education adequacy issues. (Implementing these reforms may well require the legislature to provide additional funding, but, at least at this stage, the Judge is leaving that issue for the legislature to decide.) The Court ordered the state to submit proposed reforms in all of these areas within 180 days. Once the state submits its proposed remedies, plaintiffs will have 60 days to comment on them and propose alternatives.

Both parties have cross-appealed to the Connecticut Supreme Court, which will likely hold oral arguments in September, 2017 (Brief of Defendants-Appellants/Cross-Appellees, Brief of Plaintiffs-appellees/Cross-AppellantsReply Brief of Defendants-Appellants/Cross-Appellees with Separate Appendix).

Michael A. Rebell and Robert L. Hughes, Efficacy and Engagement: The Remedies Problem Posed by Sheff v. O’Neill – and a Proposed Solution, 29 Connecticut Law Review 1115 (Spring 1997).

Last updated: April 2017