Rell v. CCJEF Lawsuit: New Britain One of Hardest Hit Cities In Funding For Schools
Money or the lack of it to pay for public education was the focus of the Democratic Town Committee meeting last month. A presentation by longtime advocate Dianne Kaplan deVries, on a landmark court case brought by the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding (CCJEF) contended that New Britain and other urban districts will always struggle for adequate education dollars so long as there is too much reliance on property taxes.
The Rell v. CCJEF suit, launched in November 2005, is applying plenty of legal pressure to shift the funding for schools away from local property taxes and to compel equity in school funding for city and suburb alike. The case, aided by the pro bono work of the Yale Law School Education Adequacy Clinic for the last seven years and taken up last year by New York City 's Debevoise & Plimpton firm, seeks a decision to re-write the Education Cost Sharing (ECS) formula to reflect "the real costs of adequately preparing all students for the modern workforce and productive citizenship."
New Britain -- one of the financially distressed cities that struggles with schools budgets every year -- could be considered Exhibit A in Rell v. CCJEF, according to Kaplan deVries' analysis presented to elected officials and DTC members on February 28th. New Britain school children, in fact, have figured prominently as plaintiffs in the litigation.
New Britain needs $21,140 per pupil in inflation-adjusted dollars to provide "an adequate education" but the school district had $12,608 (2011-2012) in local and state funds, according to the Coalition. Using that number developed as part of the research for the law suit, city schools are $8,500 per pupil short or $86 million shy of delivering the "adequate" resources.
In 2013, Kaplan deVries says the gap for New Britain is even worse. The Coalition's numbers "fail to account for unfunded mandates, full No Child Left Behind (NCLB) implementation, and other significant changes impacting the cost of schooling that have come along since 2004-05. "CCJEF’s expert finance consultants found that New Britain is one of the four most severely underfunded districts in the state" according to presentation at the DTC meeting.
Dr. Kaplan deVries, a policy expert and CCJEF project director, said the belief that "quality education is a civil right and key to achieving social justice" underlies her organization's call to fix the school funding formula on a statewide basis and to restructure the tax system so that "geography is not destiny."
Right now attorneys in Rell v. CCJEF are in a back-and-forth "discovery" phase of data collection, depositions and studies. The Attorney General is in the unenviable position of defending the status quo with a trial date now set for July 2014.
The proceedings are strikingly similar to the decades-long Sheff v. O'Neill battles that eventually led to voluntary, state-funded remedies to end racial isolation and today's network of interdistrict magnet schools. Rell v. CCJEF is just as far reaching and will impact every city and town depending on the outcome
In its challenge to the status quo CCJEF defines "adequate" education in elementary and secondary schools with a dozen components: universal preschool and full-day kindergarten, smaller class sizes, longer school day and year, with free summer school for all, help for all students falling behind, up-to-date textbooks, materials, computer technology, more/better assistance for ELL and SPED students, opportunities for advanced students, more/earlier foreign language options, expanded arts programming, guidance counselors, social workers, psychologists, more/better professional development for teachers and all staff and improved buildings/grounds maintenance.
A decision in Rell v. CCJEF is, of course, years away. Optimistically, an improving economy and a willing state government could lead to many of the remedies called for in the plaintiffs' case for a restructuring of school finance outside of the courts.
New Britain and other towns have no other option than to work within a structure that is unfair and overly reliant on the 17th century property tax to pay for 21st century teaching and learning.
More ECS money as proposed by Governor Malloy this year can help, but will not solve the underlying problem. It also helps that the eight years of willful neglect of education by the Stewart administration ended last year. Mayor O'Brien, the current Council and New Britain legislators have shown a firm commitment to give the schools their fair share, however limited revenues in cash-strapped New Britain are for education.
Regardless of the court proceedings and the outcomes, Rell v CCJEF continues to apply the needed pressure to move the state toward "adequate" funding and equity so that children in New Britain have the same opportunities as children in Greenwich.