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From Here to Tomorrow

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Jason Bowns
November 30, 2017

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) spoke to a Kansas City crowd on October 13, 1936. He described his vision, “To a greater degree than any other peoples, we have sought to give each rising generation a little better chance in life than the one that preceded it.”

Photo Credit: Politico

With this look towards the future, he added, “Those of us who helped build up the fantastic jazz era of the nineteen-twenties, which crashed down over our heads, must feel a peculiarly deep sense of responsibility to our boys and girls who were sunk with us in the ruins.”

The Great Depression couldn’t shake his commitment to education. FDR also said, “The school is the last expenditure upon which America should be willing to economize.”

Today, funding is a stubborn barrier to student learning. There was little respite from the United States Supreme Court in 1973. It held that different school funding schemes didn’t violate the Equal Protection Clause, enshrined in the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Justice Lewis Powell’s majority opinion for San Antonio School District v. Rodriguez saw the wide impact upon “systems of financing public education presently in existence in virtually every State.” Nevertheless, state taxation decisions are reserved for the states. “We do no violence to the values of federalism and separation of powers by staying our hand,” he noted.

Apparently, redress can’t come from federal courts. Powell wrote, “But the ultimate solutions must come from lawmakers and from the democratic pressures of those who elect them.”

Twenty years later, that’s exactly what happened when Governor William Weld signed the Massachusetts Education Reform Act (MERA) into law on June 18, 1993.

This resolved litigation captioned as McDuffy v. Secretary of the Executive Office of Education and asserting that public school financing schemes violated the Commonwealth’s constitution.

After all, Chapter V, Section II enumerates, “It shall be the duty of legislatures and magistrates, in all future periods of this commonwealth, to cherish the interests of literature and the sciences, and all seminaries of them; especially…public schools and grammar schools.”

The Supreme Judicial Court concluded that the government had a duty “to provide education for the public schools for the students there enrolled, whether they be rich or poor and without regard to the fiscal capacity of the community or district in which such children live.”

The McDuffy decision arrived, and Governor Weld signed MERA into law three days later. Elected officials did not idly wait for the court, nor did they rush to appeal its decision.

Instead, they chose leadership and had already spent two years drafting reform legislation. They remade the system, fulfilling their constitutional mandate to equalize educational opportunities.

Photo Credit: The Boston Globe

Beyond reformulating public school financing, MERA’s provisions also authorized twenty-five charter schools and established performance monitoring for more standards-based accountability.

Massachusetts schools have since made substantial gains largely because of what culminated in 1993. Recent analyses rank Massachusetts schools number one in the country overall.

At this very moment, Connecticut’s elected officials face a similar dilemma.

An eleven-year old lawsuit was decided last September. In Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding v. Rell, Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher expressed alarm at how the legislature cut $5.3 million in education aid from Connecticut’s poorest school districts while protecting a $5.1 million increase to the wealthiest ones in the exact same appropriation bill.

Connecticut government attorneys argued that this simply wasn’t much money at all, to which Moukawsher declared, “There are no millions to be diverted in the face of financial consequences that are choking poor Connecticut towns to death.”

Such disparities led him to conclude, “Beyond a reasonable doubt, Connecticut is defaulting on its constitutional duty to provide adequate public school opportunities because it has no rational, substantial and verifiable plan to distribute money for educational aid and school construction.”

Attorney General George Jepsen quickly appealed that opinion to the Connecticut Supreme Court which heard legal arguments in September 2017. Its decision is forthcoming.

In October 2017, the Connecticut General Assembly enacted a belated 2017-2018 budget which reduced “education cost sharing” grants to many school districts while increasing it for others.

Some poorer school districts must absorb cuts, too, which have disrupted district staffing plans. They couldn’t simply delay the school year’s start; their budgets must still run on time.

Three weeks later, Governor Daniel Malloy used his discretionary powers to impose additional multimillion dollar cuts to school aid, which abruptly threatens student learning all over again.

Public education reform can’t happen haphazardly. Even in his own bleak time, FDR didn’t hesitate to declare, “We recognize the most priceless of our human assets are the young men and women of America – the raw material out of which the United States must shape its future.”

Photo Credit: Library of Congress

Massachusetts leaders spent years building consensus and proactively crafting an enduring reform movement which has catapulted its schools to cap current national rankings.

G.K. Chesterton once observed, “Education is simply the soul of society as it passes from one generation to another.” Nurturing that enriches us all and allows our humanity to live on.

Alternatively, we can impoverish tomorrow before it’s even here.

Author: Reared in rural Connecticut, Jason Bowns earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from New York University, majoring in Classical Civilization and Hellenic Studies while minoring in Politics and Social Studies Education. He earned his Master of Public Administration degree at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, honing essential skills to detect organizational fraud, waste, and abuse. He’s reachable at [email protected].

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