Malloy administration says no to school reformers’ funding plan

Hundreds of students, parents and school choice advocates journeyed to the state Capitol this week to back a proposal that would boost support of magnet, charter and other school alternatives, but Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s budget director says the administration doesn’t support the plan.

The plan, referred to as “money follows the child,” would shift the state per-pupil grant now given to school districts to whatever school a child attends, including magnet, charter and open choice programs. Many education reform advocates support the idea, but local officials say it would siphon money away from struggling public school districts.

Benjamin Barnes, Malloy’s budget director, agreed.

“I do have real concerns for a proposal that would take funds away from local education systems because they are financially strained as they are,” Barnes said. “To suggest that [reimbursement] should be $12,000 whether you are in a charter or urban school system is unrealistic…. They have very different demands.”

school funding proposal

Students wearing t-shirts illustrating funding disparities in their towns testify to legislators

Barnes said the Malloy administration does recognize keeping charters and magnet schools as outliers to the state’s school funding formula is problematic, and does plan to bring all education funding under one umbrella — but not this year.

Lawmakers, education experts, municipal leaders and reformers all can agree the way the state finances schools is not working. What they differ on is how to fix it, and when.

The problems most often raised are that the state has not followed the formula for financing schools for years or provided the required annual increases in funding for the formula to work as intended. Critics also say the measures of poverty are too low, rich districts still receive a minimum grant, the figures used to measure a towns wealth are rarely updated and drawn from aged data and students attending alternatives to public schools are not paid for adequately.

Malloy has proposed to begin studying the issue this summer and submit a proposal by Jan. 1. Given the massive deficit, his budget director said Thursday, that’s as soon as it can be done.

“Closing the budget deficit and making a major down payment in restructuring government is a big task,” Barnes said. “I don’t think we will be able to do education financing this year.”

But a group of education advocates came to the state Capitol Thursday to say the formula hasn’t worked for a long time, and the changes should start this legislative session. Many legislators agreed.

“I believe it needed to be addressed a long time ago… I think we move extremely slowly,” said Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, D-New Haven and co-chairman of the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus.

Andrew Boas, founder of the Charter Oak Challenge Foundation, which provides scholarships for Bridgeport students to attend charter schools, urged members of the Appropriations Committee to act now.

“Step up to the plate, please. Fix this formula once and for all now,” he said.

Members of the committee heard testimony on a bill that would reorganize the current funding formula to be based on where the student actually attends school. Last month, outgoing members on the State Board of Education decided not to back a similar proposal.

The 116-page proposal introduced this week — written by the reform group ConnCAN— drew criticism from the Malloy administration, teachers unions, municipal leaders and public school officials Thursday.

“It’s radical and unreasonable,” said Kathy Frega, spokeswoman with the Connecticut Education Association, the state’s largest teacher union.

“Over all, there are 138 losers and 50 winners,” Barnes wrote committee members in submitted testimony, adding the middle-income districts would face “significant losses” and some wealthier districts even stand to gain additional revenue.

Municipal leaders also testified that the proposal would result in towns losing millions in state funding, since more students would be drawing from the same pot of money.

“This would result in a dramatic loss of state aid,” leaving local taxpayers to make up the difference, said Philip Streifer, superintendent of Bristol Public Schools and president of the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding. The group has filed a lawsuit against the state over how schools are financed. As mayor of Stamford, Malloy was a co-plaintiff in that class-action suit.

The coalition won a preliminary victory last year when the state Supreme Court ruled that all students are entitled to an “adequate education.” That allowed the lawsuit to move forward, but resolution is still years away.

But the parents attending the hearing — wearing bright yellow t-shirts with “Fund my child fairly” written on them – said the problem can be solved now and the solution is simple.

Send state money to the school where students actually attend.

“We have to change the way we do business,” said Gwen Samuel, a parent of two children attending public schools in Meriden. “At a minimum, we should make sure there is equal funding across the board… If I need [my children] to go to another school I want to know that I have that choice.”

The gap in funding between traditional and public schools was also displayed on the bright yellow t-shirts of the students who attended the hearing Thursday. A public school in Hartford is reimbursed by the state more than $17,000. A magnet school in Hartford is reimbursed $9,695 for each student, a charter school $9,300, and a vocational-technical high school $11,829.

“It just makes no sense,” said Samuel.

Barnes said fixing how schools are financed is a top priority of the Malloy administration — but for next year’s agenda so all interested parties will be included in the discussion and so enough time is given to reach a consensus.

“It’s the developing consensus that’s hard,” he said, adding his one-year goal to have a new law in place is “more aggressive” then any previous administration.

Joseph Cirasuolo, head of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents, told the committee if they rush to change the formula then it “will result in the law of unintended consequences… They need a lot of consideration and review before they are put in place.”

But Rep. Douglas McCrory, D-Hartford and a vice principal of a public school in Hartford, said he supports the study but has witnessed numerous studies come up with recommendations — and yet the problem still remains years later.

“What concerns me is we do this over and over again… It sits on a shelf and gathers dust,” he said.