Education commissioner pushes for reform of school choice funding

Magnet schools, charter schools and technical schools all have become popular options for many Connecticut families, but those schools rely on a financial structure that is “broken, unfair, and inadequately funded,” says the state’s top education official.

State Education Commissioner Mark McQuillan will ask the State Board of Education today to find ways to fix an often-criticized patchwork funding system that supports a range of school choice programs across the state.

The board is expected to approve McQuillan’s request to create an ad hoc advisory committee of educators, business leaders and lawmakers to review funding formulas and come up with recommendations by December.

Of nearly 570,000 public school students in Connecticut, about 35,000, or six percent, attend voluntary enrollment schools such as magnets, charters, technical high schools and vocational-agriculture schools or are part of a choice program allowing city schoolchildren to enroll in nearby suburban schools.

But a hodgepodge of differing financial arrangements supporting those programs has evolved over the years, producing a growing sense of frustration among educators, especially as they compete among one another for limited funds in a slumping economy.

“In times of economic crisis . . . laws that have been in place since 1995 and amended almost every year thereafter are no longer serving the public good,” McQuillan wrote in a report to the state board. “By common agreement, the system professing to support public school choice is broken, unfair, and inadequately funded.”

In his report, McQuillan said the list of complaints is long. For example:

  • In cities such as Bridgeport and New Haven, magnet school operators complain they are getting less state magnet school money than Hartford does because Hartford-area magnet schools are part of the remedy for a school desegregation ruling in the Sheff vs. O’Neill case. In that 1996 ruling, the state Supreme Court ordered state officials to reduce racial isolation in the mostly black and Hispanic Hartford school system.
  • In magnet schools throughout greater Hartford, officials contend that state support to comply with the Sheff ruling, including money for busing costs, is inadequate.
  • Suburban schools that enroll children from Hartford, Bridgeport and New Haven under the Open Choice program receive state grants of $2,500 per student, an amount far below the average per pupil cost of running schools.
  • Charter school advocates contend that their schools are inadequately funded under yet another funding formula that pays a per student state stipend of $9,300.

The funding issue boiled over last year, when Hartford Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski sent tuition bills to suburban towns whose children attend Hartford magnet schools, threatening to throw out students whose hometowns refused to pay. The move angered suburban officials, who already were paying larger-than-expected tuition bills to other regional magnet schools that operate under a separate system.

“Our current funding system doesn’t make any sense,” said State Board of Education Chairman Allan Taylor.  “It treats different institutional structures differently. It treats kids in those structures differently.”

In his recommendation to the board, McQuillan’s calls for the ad hoc committee to identify one or more national experts to review Connecticut’s laws for financing school choice programs and compare the laws with those of other states with successful magnet and charter schools.

McQuillan concedes that finding solutions will be difficult, especially when a severe recession is forcing schools to cut budgets, lay off teachers, and eliminate popular programs. Still, educators believe some type of reform is essential.

“They really need to look at the whole thing – magnet schools, the choice program, charter schools,” said Alan Addley, superintendent of schools in Granby.

Granby, for example, has been part of the suburban school choice program for many years, enrolling minority students from Hartford as part of the effort to promote racial integration in the region, but Addley said the $2,500 per pupil stipend is insufficient. “It just doesn’t add up,” he said. “We’re at a time when we’re reducing staff. The dilemma is real. . . .When you’re trying to do the right thing, it’s a tough position to be in.”

Adamowski, the Hartford superintendent, said the creation of an ad hoc committee “is a step in the right direction. I’m hoping it will be a process that leads to some considerable change.”

Adamowski has criticized the state’s magnet school funding arrangement, including provisions that continue to send state aid to local districts for students who have left their hometown schools to attend out-of-district magnets – in effect, paying twice for the same students.

Instead, he favors a system that would link state aid directly to each student, sending the money to whatever school the student attends – a magnet, a charter, a technical school or the local neighborhood school, for example. That idea – allowing the money to follow the student – is the central recommendation in a recent report by the New Haven-based school reform group ConnCAN and is expected to be part of the discussion by the ad hoc committee.

Because the plan would produce winners and losers – bolstering aid for some schools while taking away money from others – it already has generated controversy and drawn criticism from representatives of teachers’ unions, school boards and others.

Nevertheless, the recession is forcing educators to rethink how schools are funded and “could create a higher level of motivation than may have existed before,” Adamowski said. “Ultimately, what all of us are looking for is an equitable, efficient system.”