HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Connecticut's attorney general announced Thursday he will appeal a landmark court ruling that declared the state's education funding system unconstitutional and called for major reforms.
Attorney General George Jepsen asked the Connecticut Supreme Court to hear the case, saying the legislative and executive branches of government are responsible for setting education policy, not a single judge.
"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, a Democrat, said in a statement.
Despite his plans to appeal, Jepsen also urged policymakers to immediately address the "profound educational challenges" identified by the judge in his ruling.
Later Thursday, Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said he understands Jepsen's rationale for the appeal but stopped short of endorsing it. He said he and lawmakers should work in the 2017 legislative session to solve the "systemic" problems in the state's education system, including fair funding. The session begins in January.
"We know that we do not need to wait for the legal outcome to start improving outcomes for our students," Malloy said. "We hope that this moment marks the start, rather than the stalling, of a statewide dialogue around finding a better way to fund our schools."
Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher in Hartford issued his ruling Sept. 7 in an 11-year-old lawsuit filed by the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding, a nonprofit group that includes many municipalities, school boards, parents and students.
The judge ordered state officials to develop plans to overhaul the state's public education system and submit them to him within six months, saying a huge gap in test scores between students in rich and poor towns shows parts of the system are unconstitutional.
"Beyond a reasonable doubt, Connecticut is defaulting on its constitutional duty to provide adequate public school opportunities because it has no rational, substantial and verifiable plan to distribute money for education aid and school construction," Moukawsher said in his ruling.
Under the order, state officials must submit to the court plans to revamp its formula for distributing education aid to cities and towns, develop a statewide high school graduation standard such as a test, make eighth-graders show they have acquired the skills to move on to high school and replace what Moukawsher called a weak and irrational statewide system of teacher evaluation and compensation.
The coalition alleges the state isn't providing adequate education funding to cities and towns and isn't meeting its constitutional obligation to provide all students with an adequate education. It says vast differences in test results, graduation rates and other factors between rich and poor towns show the funding system isn't fair.
On recent standardized tests, more than 70 percent of third-graders in the state's richest towns met grade-level goals in reading, while nearly 70 percent of third-graders in the least affluent towns did not. On high school tests, most children in the wealthiest towns scored advanced in math and nearly the same in reading, while one out of three students in poor districts didn't reach basic levels in math and did only modestly better at reading.
Moukawsher also noted the Democrat-controlled General Assembly and Malloy changed the 2016-2017 state budget earlier this year because of a budget deficit and reduced education aid to the state's poorest districts by more than $5 million. While officials also cut school aid significantly for some wealthy towns, they increased aid to comparatively wealthy towns by more than $5 million, the judge said.
Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, had urged Jepsen to appeal the ruling.
"Judge Moukawsher's decision can only be characterized as overreaching by an activist judge," Fasano said. "His decision reads more like a legislative agenda or white paper on education policy than a judicial finding."