Overhaul of education financing formula likely to wait until 2013

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has promised to dedicate the 2012 legislative session to education reform, but fixing how the state finances public schools is likely to wait until 2013, the co-chairs of the task force responsible for making recommendations to Malloy said during their first meeting Thursday.

“It’s not as though we have to come up with something for next year,” said Sen. Andrea L. Stillman, D-Waterford, the co-chair of the panel and the legislature’s Education Committee.

ecs task force

Sen. Andrea Stillman, Benjamin Barnes: Complete overhaul next year unlikely

“I agree,” said Benjamin Barnes, the other co-chair of the task force and Malloy’s budget director, calling it “unlikely” for a complete overhaul of the system in the upcoming year.

“I think it would be very optimistic to have a complete underwriting of the formula ready,” Barnes said. He indicated after the meeting, however, that he still hoped the state could begin work on a new way of applying the state’s Education Cost Sharing formula.

The task force is planning to finish its work by October 2012 for legislators and the governor to consider their recommendations during the 2013 session.

School and municipal officials, who have been calling on the state to fix the inequities in how schools are financed for years, were not upset with the news.

“If you’re really thinking about doing something more than a few tweaks, then it needs to be a thoughtful process. I am not sure you can do that in a few months,” said Patrice McCarthy, general counsel for the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education.

“It’s a reality-based decision by them,” said Jim Finley, president of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities. “It would be a lot to swallow in a short amount of time.”

It would also take a lot of political will to completely reorganize where and how the state spends money on education. The state has had numerous tasks forces look at reshaping school financing, with mixed results depending who you ask.

For the current fiscal year, the state is set to spend $2.8 billion on education, about 14 percent of the whole budget.

“It’s a big project. It’s a huge undertaking,” said Mary Loftus Levine, the head of the Connecticut Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, and a member of the task force. She said she was “happy to hear” and a little relieved that the panel would not be rushed to come up with a quick solution.

The problems most often raised with how the state finances education are that the state has not followed the existing formula 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.

Barnes and Stillman said that completely overhauling the formula is an unrealistic goal for the upcoming three-month session, but minor tweaks addressing some of the inequities that exist are certainly fair game.

“We will be able to spend as much time as we need and not feel rushed. We will still have the opportunity to do some changes if we feel they are needed this next session,” she said. “Let’s take our time and do it properly.”

Ted Sergi, the former education commissioner, told the panel that 2013 is a much more realistic goal so “we don’t fool ourselves in trying to meet a January deadline on this complex issues.”