Despite deficit, panel recommends more state funding for schools

The panel appointed to recommend repairs to the “broken” way the state pays for education is proposing state legislators phase in an additional $757.3 million in spending over four years.

But with the state facing a deficit, everyone on the Education Cost Sharing Task Force seems to agree new money will be difficult to come by. In fact, many municipalities are worried legislators are going to cut education spending to close the deficit.

“Let us not forget that all of this is based on if we have enough money to do it. We know very well that we have some real fiscal constraints here,” said Senate Education Committee Chair Andrea L. Stillman, D-Waterford.

“I think this is aspirational,” said Ben Barnes, the governor’s budget chief, making no promises that any increase will be included in the administration’s proposed budget.

It’s a familiar scenario: a state panel or group of legislators stating a drastic increase in funding is necessary but budget deficits making it nearly impossible.

Little or no chance

“I don’t have any inkling where [the panel] thinks legislators are going to get that money… I think there’s little or no probability of it happening,” said Dianne Kaplan deVries, who leads a coalition of 55 municipal leaders suing the state over what they say is a “chronic underfunding” in education spending.

The state this fiscal year is set to spend almost $4 billion on education, almost one-fifth of state spending. Connecticut — the richest state per capita in the nation — spends more on education for each student enrolled than 43 other states. However, the nutmeg state ranks 39th in the U.S. for how much state funding covers, according to the National Education Association.

The state’s annual allocation for the Education Cost Sharing grant program has grown by $320 million over the past seven years. The program will distribute $1.9 billion this year compared with $1.6 in 2005.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who as mayor of Stamford was part of the coalition suing the state, said during his first days in office as governor that he wanted a solution to how schools are financed.

“It’s broken, and we all know it… We need to fix this formula once and for all, and we will,” he told state legislators during his first budget address two years ago.

Asked this week if school financing is still a priority, Malloy said his dedication lies with directing more funding to the lowest-performing districts. Last year, he recommended several changes that would permanently direct new state spending toward districts with students from low-income families.

“I think we’ve laid out at least a roadmap to [funding education] that is in part tied to helping the lowest-performing districts to the largest possible extent,” Malloy said.

Measuring need

The recommendations approved by the task force Thursday would revamp how the state measures need, and a towns ability to pay for educating its students. If adopted by the legislature, a town’s need would be based by weighting median household income and property values. Need will also include how many students are receiving free and reduced-price meals at school, a measurement that is expected to nearly double the number of students considered low-income.

These changes would see Hartford getting $44.4 million in four years, Bridgeport $42.8 million more and Waterbury $60.9 million more. (See a town-by-town rundown here.)

Kaplan deVries said these increases help some low-income districts more than others. It also doesn’t take into account what the actual cost is o provide an adequate education. The report does recommend that a study be completed to determine what it would actually cost to provide an adequate education.

The panel also recommended that another $50 to $100 million be spent each year for the State Department of Education to incentivize districts to make certain reforms.

While additional state funding is important, Sen. Toni N. Harp, the co-chairwoman of the legislature’s budget-writing committee, also notes education is also a local responsibility.

“We really have to look at the ability to pay… If you have the ability to pay, you should,” the New Haven Democrat told the task force.

A town’s ability to pay is something that Malloy has also pointed to.

“I would like to see more money, but I don’t have a magic wand,” he told a roomful of superintendents at their annual back-to-school conference in September.

“You know some of the school districts represented in this room will point to the state and say, ‘We are not getting as much money as we should.’ But then I can point out to you that your mill rates… are a lot smaller than other districts in the state. So the idea that the help is only going to come from the state government is not the answer.”

The panel’s recommendations now head to the governor and state legislators to consider.

Follow Jacqueline Rabe Thomas on Twitter at @jacquelinerabe