A former mayor plans to tackle state’s education aid formula

As mayor of Stamford, Dannel P. Malloy grew so frustrated seeing his wealthy neighbors get almost the same per-pupil education grants from the state as his city did that he joined a class-action lawsuit over the funding system.

As governor, he intends to change that system from within.

“There are two ways to do it: We could leave it up to the courts or we could take it up ourselves,” Malloy said in an interview with The Mirror. The current system, he says, “does a bad job of telling us where we should spend money.”

The state spends about $2.7 billion on primary, secondary and adult education each year. Malloy is calling for a fresh look at how the state spends almost $2 billion of that money dispersed for public schools through the Education Cost Sharing (ECS) grant, the largest single source of state support for public education to the state’s 169 towns, and about 10 percent of the state’s total budget.

The ECS system, which dates back more than two decades, relies on a complicated formula measuring each town’s wealth, tax base and level of need based on family poverty and other factors.

It is designed to equalize education spending among the state’s wealthy and poor towns, but the formula has never been funded to the level originally intended and has been the subject of an annual tug-of-war and frequent political compromises in the legislature.

“We just need to have an honest conversation about it,” Malloy said. “It’s been tinkered with enough.”

Malloy also wants to change other elements of the education funding system, including:

  • Funding of magnet schools, a key part of the state’s strategy for meeting the goals of the Sheff vs. O’Neill school desegregation settlement. Critics say some $1 billion spent on magnets has not produced the intended results. “I’m not rushing to fund more magnet schools,” Malloy said.
  • School construction grants. The state currently pays 20 to 80 percent of the cost of new schools, depending on the wealth of the town. That system has resulted in too many schools built at too high a price; he wants to cut back the state’s share and apply stricter oversight of projects.
  • Regionalization. Although he does not support mandating regionalization, Malloy said school officials “would be very wise to get ahead of that curve… We’re paying for with state dollars, we are subsidizing, too many superintendents, too many deputy superintendents, too many facility managers, too many department heads.”

But the big money, and probably the toughest political fight, is in changing the ECS grant formula. Every effort to adjust the formula comes up against the same obstacle: Barring substantial added funding, any change makes some towns winners and some losers.

Leaders of local school boards and teachers’ unions, frequently at odds, agree on one thing: The primary problem with ECS is that not enough money is put into it.

Patrice McCarthy, general counsel for the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, said addressing the formula will help — but the chronic underfunding from of education is a large contributor to the state continuing to have one of the largest achievement gaps among poor and wealthy students in the nation.

“A greater commitment from the state is still necessary,” she said. “You have to both fund the formula and apply it… You really have to do both.”

“I think perhaps the single greatest problem with the ECS formula is its underfunding,” agreed John Yrchik, executive director of the Connecticut Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union. “I don’t think an equity formula can be fixed by simple redistribution.”

A soon-to-be-published study commissioned by CEA found that the formula — if it were fully funded as originally designed — would result in more than $1.3 billion in additional support for public schools.

But that money isn’t forthcoming any time soon, Malloy said, given the deficits the state is facing in coming years.

“That’s why looking at how we allocate the dollars we know we’re going to spend is very important,” he said. “Every dollar that we do have to spend needs to be spent wisely.”

Some critics say the measures of poverty in the ECS formula are too low. They also wonder why rich districts still receive a minimum grant and why the figures used to measure a town’s wealth are rarely updated and drawn from aged data.

Malloy said he believes the formula does a good job of measuring town wealth, but fails to account adequately for student needs, and he cites the example of Stamford and its western neighbor, Greenwich.

Both communities rank high in terms of property tax base per capita–Greenwich is No. 1 of 169 municipalities, while Stamford is 27th, according to state calculations. But the ratio of poor students in Stamford, as measured by eligibility for subsidized school lunch, is three times higher than in Greenwich. Still, the $386 per pupil that Greenwich gets in state aid is nearly 75 percent of Stamford’s $521.

“That’s the big, giant disconnect,” he said. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

Tom Murphy, longtime spokesman for the State Department of Education, said the way the state factors in poverty is problematic.

“Some cities with high amounts of poverty have not benefited from this formula,” he said.

With a budget deficit as high as $3.7 billion to deal with this year, Malloy isn’t proposing to change ECS as well. But he plans to have a study panel make recommendations for changes by January 1 and hopes the legislature will change the formula by next May.

“It would be wrong for Connecticut state government to be a defender of the status quo,’ he said. “The status quo is not working.”