Panel approves school funding change–without union support

After months of work, a broad-based education panel is supporting a compromise proposal to overhaul how charter, magnet and public schools in the state are financed, but teacher union officials remain adamant in their opposition.

The proposal–approved Monday by State School Board Chairman Allan Taylor and leaders from the Connecticut Association of School Superintendents, Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, Connecticut Association of Boards of Education and the New Haven-based reform group ConnCAN–would create a partial “money follows the child” approach to dispensing state funding.

School reformers have long argued that state money sent to school districts on the basis of student population should be reallocated when a child leaves to attend a charter, magnet or other alternative program, in effect following that child to his or her new school.

finley and palmer

CCM’s James Finley and Sharon Palmer of the AFT discuss a school funding proposal

Municipalities and school boards generally opposed the idea, saying it would deprive cash-strapped local school systems of vital funding. Just two months ago members of the panel failed to reach an agreement on whether state funds for education should follow students who leave their local public schools.

But on Monday a compromise plan was approved with school board and municpal support, which has state funding reallocated on the basis of how much a local school district’s costs are actually reduced when a student leaves the system for an alternative program.

“Right now the school funding apparatus is a mess,” said Joseph Cirasuolo, executive director of the superintendents’ association. “Funding should be based on actual savings and actual costs.”

“Access to choice [schools] is part of the solution” to improve education, said James Finley, executive director of CCM, adding that only transferring the money a school district actually saves to the student’s new school “is not a rob from Peter’s education to pay for the education of Paul approach. That’s why we support this.”

But leaders of the teachers’ unions say the problem is not the current formula, but the state’s failure to provide adequate funding for education.

“School funding is a mess because of the implementation of the formula and the level the of funding,” said John Yrchik, head of the Connecticut Education Association, the state’s largest teacher union.

State lawmakers have long fallen short of their goal to fund 50 percent of public education. The current allocation of $1.9 billion for local school systems covers just 38 percent of the cost. The state also is spending $251 million this year on charter, magnet, vocational and other choice programs.

There are almost 560,000 students enrolled in traditional public schools compared to 48,000 students in magnets, charters or other choice programs. Thousands of students apply each year to choice programs but aren’t accepted because there aren’t enough spots available. The Hartford Board of Education estimates that currently 62 percent of students that want to leave their schools have the opportunity to do so. The State Department of Education does not calculate that figure statewide.

Alex Johnston, the head of ConnCAN, said traditional public schools are often funded at much higher levels than magnets and charters schools in the state. He said the changes endorsed Monday would help to help close that disparity.

“This is thousands of children not being funded equitably based on where they go to school,” he said.

A recent survey conducted by ConnCAN shows 72 percent of the participants support state spending for education to go to whatever school the student actually attends, be it a public or choice school.

But the teacher union leaders said the compromise plan would result in local districts loosing millions from the state and said it is impossible to quantify how much a system saves when students leave.

“I have significant doubts in whether districts can handle this,” said Sharon Palmer, head of the American Federation of Teachers-Connecticut.

The other members of the panel expressed confidence that districts could accurately measure savings, including Sherri DiNello the president of the Connecticut Association of School Business Officials.

“If ten students left one grade then there certainly is a measurable savings,” she said.

State board chairman Taylor agrees, calling the current system “fundamentally wrong”, and said he plans to bring the recommendations before the state board as early as March.

He also said this compromise is generous to local districts, which is why he supports scaling the amount that follows the child.

“Many states have all the money follow the child when they leave. This just has the actual savings follow the child. I believe that’s fair,” he said during an interview after the meeting.

The final decision will be left to lawmakers and Gov. Dannel Malloy.

Malloy said earlier this month that he agrees funding for schools needs to be reorganized, but that it cannot be fixed entirely in the short-term. He has said his immediate goal is to maintain current education funding levels as the state faces a massive deficit.

Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, D-West Hartford and co-chairman of the Education Committee, said Monday he does not expect a major overhaul of how schools are financed in the next several months.

“In the long run it definitely needs to be looks at. There will be a discussion on the fairest way to deal with funding,” he said.