NORWALK, Conn. — Connecticut’s Educational Cost Sharing (ECS) formula is purely political as it does not factor in the actual costs borne by urban districts, former Norwalk Mayor Alex Knopp said, in explaining a major lawsuit now underway in Hartford.
“The plaintiffs’ case is based in part on the proposition that the ECS formula is an arbitrary and irrational formula. It is not based on any systematic evaluation either of how students are able to meet the state’s expectations of, for example, achievement, test scores and so on, and that there was very little if any appropriate research done to determine how much to weight different factors when devising the formula,” Knopp said, in providing an update on the lawsuit Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Educational Funding (CCJEF) versus Rell.
Knopp was one of the original mayors to sign onto the case, but was voted out of office in 2005 before Norwalk contributed to the prosecution of it financially. Former Mayor Richard Moccia declined to sign onto the case, saying that he felt it inappropriate for a Republican mayor to sue a Republican governor. When Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy replaced Rell, Norwalk began paying the $15,000 a year to support CCJEF; that has continued under Mayor Harry Rilling, a Democrat suing a member of his own party.
Rilling is on the CCJEF steering committee.
“Stamford and Norwalk are the cities most severely underfunded under the ESC formula,” Rilling said in an email. “While every mayor from Stamford and Norwalk, as well as legislative delegates from both cities, have attempted to change this, no progress has been made. The lawsuit is our hope right now.”
In fact, both Rilling and Knopp have, in the past, called the case Norwalk’s “best chance” for seeing a significant change.
Presentation of CCJEF’s case began in January and continued to March 4; there was a three-week recess and the state began its defense on March 30. Knopp said he expects this to take about four weeks, and then CCJEF will present rebuttal witnesses.
“That may take upwards of two weeks to conclude depending on how the plaintiffs’ attorneys view the strength of the states’ argument,” he said.
Knopp said he is not involved in the day-to-day courtroom litigation, which is being handled by the New York law firm Debevoise & Plimpton LLP, with the assistance of Yale Law School students. Knopp is a visiting clinical lecturer at the school and co-teaches the Legislative Advocacy Clinic and the Education Adequacy Clinic, according to his rèsumé.
“I do monitor developments in the case based on my teaching position and law school in support of the law students who are working with Debevoise,” Knopp said. “Of course, I have deep interest in the case as one of the mayors that originally brought case in 2005.”
When the courtroom battle is over, “The judge has by statute 120 days to issue a written opinion, but that time can be extended if both sides were to agree. We are not expecting a decision in the case much before the end of the calendar year,” Knopp said.
The case has a special status because, in 2010, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that that state constitution guarantees the right for an adequate education for all students and that the state has obligation to provide it, Knopp said.
The case was sent back down to a new trial judge, not the judge who had ruled that the state did not have that obligation, he said.
“I think everyone expects the judge’s opinion to be very comprehensive, given the nature of the referral from the Supreme Court to determine whether or not this significant state education duty is being fulfilled,” Knopp said.
While politicians routinely complain that the ECS is based too heavily on property values and not enough on median income and other factors of poverty, Knopp’s description of the legal argument goes into educational data.
“One of the reasons each side is presenting expert testimony from school finance experts is to provide an analytical framework for evaluating actual evidence about the ECS formula and whether it has been properly devised and funded,” Knopp said.
One factor of the formula is the cost of educating a child who is growing up in poverty, he said.
“How do you determine that factor? Is it one third more than an average middle class student? Is it double the cost of that student? Is it 75 percent? That research was never done,” Knopp said.
Another variable educational cost factor is the cost of educating a student who does not speak English, he said.
“What additional resources does a district like Norwalk need, when you are talking about 30 or 40 different foreign languages being spoken in the schools?” Knopp asked.
“The plaintiff’s position is that in fact, the ECS formula is more of a politically based formula rather than one arrived at in research-based evidence on actual costs to educate students, especially in the urban district,” Knopp said.
These arguments are laid out in CCJEF’s proposed finding of facts, updated for the court on March 9. ECS “is arbitrary, is not the result of a rational design process, and is not based on the actual cost to educate students in Connecticut,” the statement asserts.
It also talks about the disparity inherent in funding education by property taxes, specifically citing Bridgeport, Danbury, East Hartford, New Britain, New London, and Windham.
Norwalk and Stamford are not mentioned in the proposed statement.
“Even though Norwalk might not be specifically mentioned, we are very much a part of the process,” Rilling said.
The state also has a proposed statement of fact.
“Connecticut’s public education system spends more per pupil on education than almost any other state, even accounting fully for the cost of living in Connecticut,” the statement asserts. “… Connecticut’s Education Cost Sharing (ECS) system generally provides the most state support to the poorest districts, and the least state support to the wealthiest districts.”
There are reform programs, the state says.
“The Alliance District program poured well over an additional $400 million into the 30 lowest performing districts alone in the last 3 fiscal years, an unprecedented increase in resources in such a short period of time for those districts,” the statement says.
Norwalk gets about $1.5 million in Alliance funding.
High school graduation rates are improving in Connecticut, according to the state:
“By 2014, the graduation rate gap between black students and white students decreased to a 13.6-point gap, down from 20 points in 2010. Overall, the gap has decreased 6.4 points since 2010, representing a gap closure of 31.8 percent. The graduation rate gap between Hispanic students and white students decreased to an 18.3-point gap-down from 24.7 points in 2010. Overall, the gap decreased 6.4 points since 2010, representing a gap closure of 26.1 percent.”
How is the court case going?
“It’s never a good idea for anyone involved in the case to discuss its progress during the case presentation so I really can’t comment other than to say that my observation is the plaintiffs case has been presented very well and now we will see what the state has to say in response,” Knopp said.
He will talk about a unique facet of such a large trial.
“It’s been an extraordinary challenge of courtroom organization to present the over 700 exhibits and organize the many witnesses and legal briefs, so having a major law firm like Debevoise has been essential to the successful presentation of the initial case by the plaintiffs,” Knopp said. “In my view, they have done extraordinary job. The courtroom is a marvel of technology. The parties are able to call up any exhibit from the several hundreds that have been filed and view them almost instantaneously on a flat screen monitor… it’s been really remarkable to watch the presentation of a major case going in.”