Monday, May 5, 2008

Connecticut Court Considers: What Is A Good Education?

I just had to share this one with you.

This April 23 article that was in the Hartford Courant examines the words of Simon Bernstein (now age 95 and a retired judge) who back in 1965 was largely responsible for crafting an article added to the state constitution guaranteeing "free public elementary and secondary schools." He was convinced to make education a fundamental right. Last month, the exact meaning of his words were up for debate as the state Supreme Court heard arguments in a lawsuit challenging the way the state funds education.

The article states:
The lawsuit was brought against the state on behalf of 10 families with children in public schools and the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding, a group of education and municipal organizations.

It claims that the state fails to maintain a suitable and substantially equal education system by providing inadequate resources and conditions for education in many school districts, leaving students unprepared for jobs or continuing education and likely politically and socially marginalized.

They are seeking a wholesale revision of the way the state funds public education, although the lawsuit does not spell out specifics.

In September, Superior Court Judge Joseph M. Shortall ruled that the state constitution does not mandate a minimum standard of quality for public education, leaving no room for the court to address it.But representatives for the plaintiffs in an appeal argued that the right to education outlined in the constitution implies an adequate education. David Noah, who argued on behalf of the plaintiffs, questioned what the purpose of a fundamental right to education would be if it did not provide students with the opportunity for gainful employment or higher education.

"However you define it, the fundamental right to education has to have content," said Noah, one of 14 Yale law students who are handling the case pro bono under the supervision of Professor Robert Solomon.

Noah cited a range of statistics, including literacy rates in Bridgeport and dropout rates in Hartford, to suggest that schools are not fulfilling any minimum standard of education quality. He also noted that courts in many other states have held that students have a right to an adequate or sound education.

But Assistant Attorney General Gregory D'Auria, representing the state, said the constitution leaves school matters to the legislature, not the courts, and that education of a particular quality is not an enumerated right in Connecticut.

"The right is to free public schools," he said.

The Horton v. Meskill lawsuit established the right of Connecticut students to a substantially equal education, and the justices asked D'Auria whether equal implied some sort of quality. D'Aurio argued that while equality is a right, quality is not.

"So as long as it's equally bad, it's OK?" Justice Joette Katz asked.

"If it's equally bad, the democratic process should and will correct that," D'Auria said.

"If it's equally bad," Justice Flemming L. Norcott noted, "then there's not much to the fundamental right."

Bernstein did not address the court Tuesday, but he submitted a brief supporting the plaintiffs. Back in 1965, he said, he had a "decent" education in mind — something that would prepare students for jobs or college. But even today, he said, he would not want to spell out what is required under the right to education, because he is not an educator.

And Bernstein said he did not believe his intent was of prime importance. The wording was intended to allow each generation to interpret it appropriately to the time. Today, he said, schools are in far worse condition than they were in 1965.
It is interesting that what the state is mandated to do, as was brought out by the Sheff vs. O'Neill lawsuit, is that the state must provide an equal opportunity to receive an adequate education. That's it. Additionally, the state has nothing whatsoever to do with educating all children as some people have been led to believe ... only those enrolled in their system. It must be noted that the notion that there is some sort of state "obligation under the law to educate all children" is simply not true. It is the parents duty to see that their child is educated (CGS 10-184). But I digress...

So what constitutes a decent or adequate education? or even an equal education? In CT every town has it's own way of establishing their schools and the rules which govern them - save for unfunded state mandates and dictates from the state. That's what we know as "home rule". Every town has it's right to it's own set of standards, although now they are being made to jump through hoops of certain standards or at least demonstrate yearly progress because of "No Child Left Behind". There really is no such thing as equivalent instruction or even equivalency between different school systems. There are no standards of what constitutes "an adequate education"... yet. I am not sure there ever can be, because adequacy means different things to different people.

In a previous post I wrote about the issue of equivalency:
In Connecticut, there was a major lawsuit brought against the State Department of Education. In 1989, lawyers for an interracial group of urban and suburban children brought suit against the state. In that case, Sheff v. O'Neill, they argued that racial segregation in the Hartford region violated their state constitutional guarantee of the provision of an equal education. The courts agreed and ordered the General Assembly to create plans for achieving equal educational opportunity. This case was not only about desegregation, but about making equal education opportunities available to all students everywhere. Although the plaintiffs won, and the State was charged with making changes to remedy “unequivalent” education, to date little has really been achieved. Civil rights groups were back in court to again to sue the state in 2004 after concluding it hadn't met a chief goal of a 2003 settlement resulting from the landmark case -- integrating Hartford's public magnet schools. Many magnet schools and charter schools have been designed to be more inclusive and diverse, but one will clearly still get a much different education in Bridgeport (an urban area) than in Simsbury (a suburban area). The problem is not a lack of funding; it is the absurdity of the notion that every school can offer the same education to all children.... Education cannot be homogenized and made into a one size fits all or one product that can be consumed by all. Education must be unequivalent to meet the needs of each child, and how they learn. In reality, education even within the public school system already is and will continue to be unequivalent.
I think this is relevant here because what is adequate for one school system may not be adequate for another. What one school system may deem a good education is probably not the same as another and so we have this issue that we keep going round and round with. I think we can all agree that kids ought to be able to read and write and do basic mathematics. But is that adequate for all kids? Perhaps some parents want more for their kids. Adequacy is subjective.

What ought to considered is what the purpose is of education really was initially (as discussed by John Taylor Gatto):
Mass schooling of a compulsory nature really got its teeth into the United States between 1905 and 1915, though it was conceived of much earlier and pushed for throughout most of the nineteenth century. The reason given for this enormous upheaval of family life and cultural traditions was, roughly speaking, threefold:

1) To make good people. 2) To make good citizens. 3) To make each person his or her personal best. These goals are still trotted out today on a regular basis, and most of us accept them in one form or another as a decent definition of public education's mission
There are others who have added onto that definition since 1915. But what honestly constitutes "good or adequate" education, is purely subjective.

Here are some views by Thomas Jefferson regarding an adequate education:
Thomas Jefferson believed that universal education would have to precede universal suffrage. The ignorant, he argued, were incapable of self-government. But he had profound faith in the reasonableness and teachableness of the masses and in their collective wisdom when taught. He believed that the schools should teach reading, writing, and arithmetic. Also, the children should learn about Grecian, roman, English, and American History. Jefferson believed the nation needed public schools scattered around, for all male citizens to receive free education.
Looks like public education has fallen quite short by his standards.

Most kids are lucky if they can function well enough to get a good job out of high school. The definition of adequate education is also different among states in the nation (yes other states grapple with this issue too). Meanwhile in Connecticut the debate will rage on, no doubt until "home rule" is obliterated and some set of standards are set by the state. God only know what those standards might be. Most likely they will not be as high as Jefferson's.

As for Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding - here are two very interesting pieces written about CCJEF and their background - Here and here.

All in all - a pretty interesting and provocative subject.