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Did One Connecticut Judge Just Change the Conversation About Education Inequality?

Sweeping decision goes beyond money to focus on student outcomes — a long overdue move.

“Schools are for kids.”

In that one short statement, Connecticut Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher delivered a harsh rebuke to anyone who has forgotten that simple truth.

His ruling reminded all of us that our state has a constitutional obligation to fulfill a right of the highest importance: a great public education. In a court ruling that was mainly about how much we should be spending on education, Judge Moukawsher went deeper into the issue because money alone cannot and will not solve our persistent educational shortcomings.

Instead of focusing on inputs (how much we should be spending on education, do children have updated textbooks, desks, etc.), Moukawsher took the long view. He focused on outcomes for Connecticut’s students and added to the robust national conversation on education inequality.

He addressed school funding, but did not call on the state to spend more on education. Instead, he called out the state’s current “whimsical” and “illusory” education funding decisions that are no longer guided by any clear rational formula, which leaves students with similar learning needs funded at radically different amounts based on where a student lives or the type of the type of public school a student attends.

This call is long overdue — we need a funding formula that works for children, not system. Families want good schools and are trying to choose them in droves. We need a funding system that gives them this power, funding students based on their learning needs, at the public schools that they actually attend.

But Judge Moukawsher didn’t stop there. He went beyond how money is distributed to focus on how we use those resources to ensure that all children get the educational opportunities they need and graduate ready for the challenges ahead of them.

Judge Moukawsher called for the removal of persistent barriers to student success and equity, such as arcane teacher and leader staffing systems based only on years on the job and degrees earned while leaving out the most important factor: impact on student growth. He zeroed in on a critical policy weakness in our efforts to recruit, retain and reward our best teachers and leaders, even though research has shown the quality of a child’s teacher and school leader are the two most important school-based factor impacting a child’s success.

Moukasher’s ruling spoke directly to the pain that far too many students, for too many years, have felt when they leave our high schools and arrive at college, only to realize that they are woefully unprepared for the task ahead. For example, recently released results of SAT scores underscore the need for dramatic improvement. Only 6 out of 10 students in the state are ready for college-level work in English and 4 out of 10 students are ready in math. This is a gap in readiness that our students and our state cannot afford. In just a couple of years, the majority of jobs in our state are going to require some education beyond high school.

The changes Moukawsher call for directly confront Connecticut’s future and how we see ourselves. Do we want our kids to graduate with meaningless diplomas, or do we want them to demonstrate mastery and earn a diploma that signifies they are ready for college and the careers of tomorrow?

This extraordinary ruling called for the state to act with great urgency. The state must develop a plan within 180 days — the length of a school year — based on what works: a school system and funding that is always student-focused, where teachers and leaders are evaluated and supported based on how their students perform, and where schools are free to innovate.

Although Moukawsher’s ruling was focused on Connecticut, it should also open a broader discussion about how we educate children in America and whether or not we are preparing all of them to compete globally. In spite of significant strides, America is still deeply divided by race and class and has struggled to fulfill the promise of providing all of its children with a high-quality education.

Meanwhile, in the Nutmeg State, our General Assembly has an opportunity to chart a new future with wind at their backs. Families, students, advocates, community, faith and business leaders and others are calling for a fix to our broken education system.

It is a call we must answer — our collective future depends on it.