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Legislators should address the need for more quality educational options so judges don’t have to

September 15, 2016

Last week’s Connecticut court ruling in a school finance case went far beyond calling for more money. Trial court judge Thomas Moukawsher issued a nearly 100-page opinion (which took three hours to read from the bench) that declared the state funding formula unconstitutional and gave state lawmakers six months to make drastic changes to the entire system.

The Wall Street Journal called it a “sweeping ruling” and local media said it was “a broad indictment of how Connecticut supports its poorest schools.” Remarkably, the ruling contains a lengthy review of academic research and legal jurisprudence. Judge Moukawsher dovetails policy and legal theory in what is the latest in a string of school finance rulings from various states that have ordered lawmakers to make specific policy changes in order to increase school funding or otherwise change state educational systems.

In 2014, an Arizona judge ruled that the state legislature’s formula for calculating public school funding was illegal, and specified the amount of money the legislature had to repay schools—some $317 million. In an earlier ruling, the judge had ordered the legislature to repay $1.6 billion over the next 5 years.

Washington State courts issued a similar, though more punitive, ruling in 2012, when it ordered lawmakers to increase public school funding and later threatened to sanction the legislature if lawmakers failed to do so. By August 2015, the court was not satisfied with legislators’ increases and began fining the state $100,000 per day until the legislature met the court’s demands.

But as the Washington Policy Center explains, taxpayers are actually the ones who must pay this fine and the funds would be kept in an account to be used for future educational services, “so the court’s fine is more of a bookkeeping exercise than a real penalty.” Nevertheless, the court-imposed financial penalty (which it still has not paid) is a shocking inroad on the principle of separation of powers. It’s the legislature’s job, not the judiciary’s, to create education and tax policy.

Financial penalties aren’t the only new development—earlier this year, the Kansas Supreme Court effectively threatened to close state public schools, ruling that the legislature “had not performed its duty” to comply with an earlier ruling that ordered an increase in education funding. As Kansas Republican House Speaker Ray Merrick said, “The court has yet again demonstrated it is the most political body in the state of Kansas.” Lawmakers added an additional $38 million in school funding near the end of June, which the court decided was enough to open schools at the beginning of the 2016 school year, but the court will hear oral arguments later this month on whether the funding formula is adequate.

In the Connecticut case, Judge Moukawsher wrote that “to get rid of an irrational policy [we must] adopt a rational one,” and listed five policy areas the legislature’s solution must cover, including school finance, “a definition of elementary and secondary education,” and “standards” for teacher employment practices. It’s arguable that he went beyond his authority to order such specific changes (perhaps even well beyond his authority), but the need for more quality educational options for all students would be there irrespective of his decision. The process of democratic government requires compromise, deliberation, argument, and persuasion—not top-down commands. Still, throwing more money at schools is not a permanent solution, and Judge Moukawsher appears to recognize this: “The court knows what its ruling means for many deeply ingrained practices, but it also has a marrow-deep understanding that if they are to succeed where they are most strained schools (sic) have to be about teaching children and nothing else.” More lawmakers should operate with this directive so that judges do not have to issue orders. 



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