A Superior Court judge just took over Connecticut's education system, ordering state officials to undertake major reforms of funding, teacher evaluation and graduation standards. The impulse to improve education is admirable, but the judge wildly overreached his authority.
The Sept. 7 decision is an object lesson in what happens when judicial restraint is ignored. Judges are poorly placed to compel and supervise detailed policy reforms, and they’re less expert on the subject than state officials who are responsible to the electorate.
To put the Connecticut decision in context, it’s worth noting that lots of state courts in recent years have demanded greater equality in distributing public-school dollars. That’s reasonable enough. The courts generally rely on a combination of state constitutional provisions that guarantee public education and equal protection of the laws.
The federal Constitution hasn’t been interpreted this way, though the Supreme Court came close in 1973. But if getting an education is the basic tool to achieve success in a modern economy, it makes sense for states to deliver this basic good on an equal basis, rather than letting rich kids in rich neighborhoods get a better-funded education than their poor counterparts in poor neighborhoods.
The Connecticut constitution says simply that “there shall always be free public elementary and secondary schools in the state.” In 1977, the state supreme court said that meant public education was a fundamental right for Connecticut residents. And in 2010, the state supreme court allowed a far-reaching challenge to Connecticut's educational system to go forward on the theory that the state constitution requires the system to be minimally adequate.
That led to a trial held before Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher -- and to his 90-page decision, followed by 154 pages of appendices drawing factual conclusions from the record.
Moukawsher did demand greater equality in state spending, noting that cuts in recent years had hit schools in places such as New Haven and Bridgeport much harder than schools in better-off suburbs such as Greenwich and New Canaan.