WATERBURY, Conn. – Parents-turned-reformers Gwen Samuel and Alisha Love describe their latest effort to improve the educational opportunities for Connecticut’s disadvantaged students as a modern day David-versus-Goliath story.
They’re being modest.
Whereas David only had one giant to face, Samuel and Love are taking on the most powerful political leaders and policy makers in the entire state of Connecticut, including Gov. Dannel Malloy, General Assembly leaders, Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor, and the State Board of Education.
In a lawsuit filed in Connecticut Superior Court on May 2, the two parents are asking a judge to halt further implementation of the state’s 2010 and 2012 education reform laws, on the grounds that they are not fulfilling students’ constitutional rights to an adequate education.
Samuel and Love say the reform laws simply throw huge sums of money at a dysfunctional education system with no oversight to ensure that the additional K-12 spending is actually leading to improved student learning.
“We’re not trying to stop education reform,” Samuel explains to EAGnews. “The problem is the money is not reaching the kids.”
For evidence that the reforms are not benefitting students, the women point to new statistics that show the number of failing schools in the Constitution State – as defined by the federal government’s No Child Left Behind Law – has increased by 90 percent since 2010, the year lawmakers passed the first “sweeping” education reform law.
Samuel and Love say too many K-12 dollars are being eaten up by school administrative costs and on professional development programs for teachers that haven’t been proven to make a difference in student achievement.
The state argues that the women lack standing to file such a lawsuit and that their claims are not sufficiently “ripe” for the court to intervene.
Attorneys for the state have filed a motion to dismiss the parents’ lawsuit, which will be heard by Connecticut Superior Court Judge Mark Taylor on June 12.
Reforms aren’t improving conditions for students
The basis of Samuel and Love’s lawsuit is a 2010 Connecticut Supreme Court ruling that found the state has a constitutional duty to provide students with an “adequate” public education – one that prepares them for higher education or the workforce.
Lawmakers responded two months later with a 2010 education reform law that, among other things, attempted to improve teacher quality by partially linking evaluations with student performance. The law also allowed for the hiring of hundreds of additional teachers.
Despite all the hoopla surrounding the 2010 education reform law, lawmakers and education officials realized just two years later that the law wasn’t having much of an impact.
In 2012, Connecticut lawmakers revisited education reform and passed another law that increased K-12 spending by $100 million and granted state education officials the power to impose drastic reforms in 25 of the most dysfunctional schools.
While the latest reform law has only been in effect one year, Samuel and Love say the 2012 law is failing just like its predecessor did. They say too many students are still trapped in failing, chaotic schools – an indication the state still hasn’t fulfilled its constitutional duty to provide students with an adequate education.
In their lawsuit, the parents argue that “limited access of educational opportunities not only continues for certain populations of children and their parents/legal guardian(s), but the lack of results-based fiscal and program oversight” from the state “continues to contribute to this access gap for the educational underclass.”
They have a point.
In 2010, there were 184 Connecticut schools that failed to make “adequate yearly progress” in math and reading scores, as required under the No Child Left Behind law. The number of failing schools jumped to 350 this year, according to the lawsuit.
Samuel and Love say the roughly 200,000 kids who are trapped in one of those failing schools are being denied their constitutional right to an adequate education.
The women’s lawsuit also claims that the Waterbury School District – Love’s home district, which has several of the failing schools – has received extra state K-12 aid, but has wasted much of it on administrative expenses, even as the district has “eliminated critical supports like supplemental after school and parent choice programs.”
“This has been allowed because of (a) lack of fiscal and program oversight,” Samuel and Love write in their lawsuit.
They add that extra state aid – courtesy of the 2012 reform law – is being spent on professional development that doesn’t “always meet the academic needs of at-risk students in need of qualified instructors in core subject areas like reading and math.”
Samuel says that while certain training courses might be allowed under the terms of the teachers’ contract, that doesn’t mean they should be funded over programs that have been designed to directly help students.
Those programs are delivering on the state’s constitutional duty to provide an adequate education to children, and they should not be shortchanged by union demands.
“The money just has to reach the classroom,” Samuel says. “The teachers’ contract cannot trump the constitution.”
The best-case scenario
Samuel tells EAGnews the goal of the lawsuit is to prevent the state from spending more education reform-related dollars until an audit is done to ensure that the spending policies are actually benefiting students, and not just school employees.
Samuel and Love also want the courts to end school residency laws that keep kids trapped inside failing school districts. Families should be provided with scholarships that will allow them to send their children to the school of their choice, they say.
The duo is adding more parents to the lawsuit, and they’ve even found a lawyer who is willing to represent their cause.
The state’s attorneys have said Samuel and Love’s lawsuit represents “an extraordinary step of enjoining the Governor, the Commissioner of Education, the Treasurer, the Comptroller and the chairs of the General Assembly’s Education and Judiciary Committees … from engaging in certain actions, inactions or other measures.”
“We’re taking extraordinary steps in extraordinary budgetary times for extraordinary kids,” Samuel says.