First challenge of ECS panel: Untangling old compromises

The new state panel charged with ensuring fairness in Connecticut’s education financing system hit its first quandary Thursday: How do you fix the program when decades of political compromises and nearly $3.8 billion in under-funding have left virtually all communities–rich and poor alike–feeling short-changed?

In its first detailed briefing on state education financing, the Education Cost Sharing task force learned that:

  • Connecticut’s share of local education funding reached its lowest point in two decades over the last two years.
  • While poor cities argue they don’t receive sufficient funds through ECS, nearly 50 of the wealthiest communities effectively receive less per student now than they did just before the first education equalization formula was drafted, after adjustments for inflation.
  • And an artificial capping system has deprived the ECS program of an average of $760.4 million annually since 2006-07.

The ECS system “has been a series of political compromises over the years,” Brian Mahoney, the state Department of Education’s chief financial officer, told the panel that must recommend options to reform education financing next February. “The state has never really, actually funded the pure formula.”

With nearly $1.9 billion in grants this fiscal year to Connecticut school districts, the ECS system is largest component in a $4.2 billion state funding plan for municipal education that also includes school construction grants; teachers’ pension account contributions; a vocational-technical high school system; specialized state school districts serving abused and disabled children; and racial diversity programs.

While a major state tax hike enabled Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and the legislature to maintain ECS funding despite the loss of federal aid, the state budget includes significant cuts to spending on construction, diversity and technical high schools.

And though the ECS spending level was maintained, Mahoney and Office of Legislative Research analyst John Moran also told the panel that the grant formula, which takes into account a community’s wealth, student population, numbers of families from households on federal assistance, and past education spending, still will distribute $724.8 million less than the formula calls for.

Artificial caps on the ECS program are nothing new. In each of the prior four fiscal years, under-funding levels have ranged from $731.1 million to $865.9 million.

Part of the controversy over ECS stems from what analysts called “the myth of the 50-50 funding promise.”

The state Supreme Court ruled in the landmark 1977 case of Horton v. Meskill that Connecticut’s flat, $250 per pupil grant to municipal school districts was unconstitutional because it didn’t recognize disparities in local wealth.

Though a state Board of Education advisory panel recommended a long-term goal of state assistance covering, on average, half of each community’s local education costs, “no one who controlled the purse strings, neither legislatures nor governors, came forward and said 50-50 is our goal,” Moran said.

Nonetheless, that perception creates a problem: The state’s share of local education spending generally has been in the high-30 percent to low-40 percent range for much of the past two decades. And the deviation among communities has been even greater.

Almost immediately after the first equalization formula was enacted, legislators added “stop-loss” provisions to ensure wealthier communities didn’t experience reductions in state aid–a move that has long drawn criticism from poorer communities, both urban and rural.

But while more affluent towns may have been protected in the short term that didn’t last. Accordingto Thursday’s briefing, the 24 wealthiest towns receive about $378 per student, and and the 24 in the next wealth ranking receive about $735. The $250 per student grant issued in 1977, when adjusted for inflation, would be worth $934 now.

“Which virtually means for the last 35 years they have gotten nothing,” said former state Education Commissioner Theodore Sergi, a member of the task force.

ECS funding per student then climbs in the next five wealth tiers to $1,720, $2,744, $3,125, $4,586, and $6,860 per student for the poorest communities in Connecticut.

Sen. Toni Harp, D-New Haven, co-chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, said it’s crucial that this task force not only analyze funding issues, but also assess the educational results school districts are achieving.

But Sergi cautioned after the meeting that no school funding equalization program can–on its own–also equalize education results.

“You can’t look at ECS to solve everything,” he said, adding that the effects of poverty and other social problems can’t be overcome by school spending alone.

Meriden School Superintendent Mark Benigni, who also serves on the task force, said that rather than look for ways to fully fund the current ECS formula, the panel might be better off trying to determine the fairest way to distribute the $1.9 billion the program has been allocated in each of the past three budgets. “I think for this committee to do its job, that’s what has to be shared,” he said.

The alternative, he added, is to develop a formula that calls for more–and then faces the risk of being subverted by state policy makers unwilling to fund it.

“I don’t know who in the legislature is happy with the ECS formula,” Sen. Andrea L. Stillman, D-Waterford, co-chairwoman of the task force, said. “I think everything needs to be on the table, … but I think there’s a good foundation with what we have now and I’m not sure I want to throw it out.”