Solving the way schools are funded without pouring in new dollars

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy wants a solution to the “broken” way the state funds education without an influx of new money.

As the task force he has asked to solve this puzzle nears completion of its initial recommendations, his budget chief has frequently reminded the members that more money cannot be their solution.

“I just don’t see that happening,” Ben Barnes has said at multiple meetings.

“It’s unrealistic,” echoed Sen. Toni N. Harp, D-New Haven, at the task force’s meeting this month. “As Appropriations (Committee) chair, I can say it ain’t going to happen.”

The state will spend $3.7 billion on education this year, about one-fifth of the state’s total budget. The problem is that in order for the state’s funding formula to work as intended, it needs at least an additional $724 million each year, according to top state education officials.

Malloy is hardly the first to promise to address the way public schools are financed. It’s been a theme among numerous task forces and officials over the years.

But Malloy is not discouraged. “Who says we can’t?” he said in response to a comment that many think it would be impossible for the state to turn around its education system without an influx of additional funding.

It’s a bold gamble on his part, and he’s got a deadline.

If he loses and fails to allay the concerns of the funding shortfalls, a judge in Hartford Superior Court will get to determine how much the state spends on education. The Connecticut Supreme Court recently ruled the state is responsible for providing an “adequate” education, and sent the case to the lower court to determine if the state’s current level of funding is sufficient.

Malloy said during a recent interview, “there will be plenty of time” to deal with this Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding lawsuit after he has a go at fixing the education formula. Malloy likely has two years before the Superior Court will hear the case and has yet to meet with the lawyers for the plaintiffs.

A national issue

Connecticut is not alone in underfunding its education formula, Michael Griffith, a national school finance expert with the Education Commission of the States, told the task force recently.

“The funding doesn’t match up,” he said. He said only five states fully fund their formulas, and this is because they have been the subjects of court rulings.

At least a dozen states face lawsuits challenging their funding systems, according to a recent Education Week article.

But Malloy is depending on his school-financing panel to give him the solution on how to avoid court intervention.

“It’s broken and we all know it,” Malloy told legislators last year of the Education Cost Sharing formula when creating the task force. “We need to fix this formula once and for all, and we will.”

What they’re considering

Dwindled down from a long list of necessary changes members  of the task force said are needed, ninerecommendations are expected to move forward at Thursday’s meeting:

* The state should use an accurate system to determine a town’s wealth so that state money is directed to communities that need it the most. The state now uses 12-year-old census data to calculate this figure.

The Connecticut Education Association, the state’s largest teacher union, has pushed for the state to use the number of students receiving free- and reduced-price lunches as a measure to calculate need.

But the State Department of Education’s budget office reports that wouldn’t shift around resources very much absent additional funding.

Griffith said the yardstick several other states have used to determine at-risk students in a district by looking at the number of their students not meeting academic standards, the rate of teen pregnancy or dropout rates.

The Connecticut panel has talked at length about using annual income tax filings so the state is using up-to-date data, but Kevin B. Sullivan, the tax commissioner, said there is a major problem with relying on that since 20 percent of the state’s population is not required to file tax returns because they earn so little or don’t file.

The draft report the panel is considering does not elaborate on which measures the panel will recommend the state use to calculate wealth, but Sullivan reminded the panel that whatever measures they select, there will be winners and losers. “It’s always political,” he said.

That was certainly the case when the topic turned to a more accurate count of the number of students a district actually teaches. The state currently allows prison and dorm populations to be counted when calculating a town’s population, a measure that artificially inflates the money those towns receive for students their schools will never have to educate.

“Legislators will start scurrying” if they lose these residents in their counts, acknowledged Sen. Andrea Stillman of Waterford, co-chairwoman of the legislature’s Education Committee whose district includes a prison.

* Another recommendation that made it to the draft report includes “fair and reasonable” funding for the state’s nontraditional public schools.

The state will spend $458.7 million this year for the almost 50,000 students attending magnet, charters and vocational schools. The major gripe among school choice advocates is that they are being even more shortchanged than the public schools by being left out of the state’s largest school funding grant. Those schools are now dependent on a separate grant.

And despite charter school advocates showing up to several meetings in red shirts reading “fund us fairly,”it is unlikely that the panel will be backing the change they seek — to allow state funding to follow the student to whatever school they attend.

Last year, Barnes opposed such a measure saying it would strip needed money from public schools.

The panel, which was split on the initiative at its last meeting, agreed to put forward a “broad” recommendation saying how these schools are financed needs to be addressed, but it decided to let the legislature sort it out.

* The panel also is eyeing tying funding to academic results and establishing competitive grants to force districts to make the reforms the state thinks are necessary. A national report card released last week ranked Connecticut as one of the worst states for holding districts accountable for the money the state sends them.

Both Malloy and Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor have said they support sending money to districts that make the necessary changes. But several members of the task force, including the teachers union and Harp, have said they can only back that initiative if that comes from new money. Malloy and Pryor have indicated they support sending additional money to the lowest-achieving districts when they make the necessary changes, but have not divulged where that money would come from.

* The panel is also eyeing requiring municipalities to provide a more detailed account of where they are spending their money.

During several meetings, concerns were raised that since state funding for education is funneled to towns who then send it to their school districts, they aren’t convinced it all makes it to the schools.

But Jim Finley, the leader of the state’s municipal association, said that’s not the case and provided a town-by-town breakdown of education spending compared with state funding.

*Members did agree to include the recommendation that they support more state funding for education, but recognize the slim chances of that happening.