Opposition growing to Malloy’s education funding plan

Momentum is growing at the state Capitol to reject the governor’s proposed changes in how the state funds education.

Speaker of the House J. Brendan Sharkey said the budget bill the Education Committee unanimously approved two weeks ago is a much better alternative than what the governor wants to do.

“Those particular proposals are along the lines of what I would like to accomplish,” the Democrat from Hamden said. “If I have my way, they have a really good chance” of becoming law.

The governor’s budget released in February would increase state funding for education by $50.8 million next fiscal year and $101.5 million the following year — something both Sharkey and Rep. Andy Fleischmann, the House chairman of the Education Committee, say they support.

The problem they have with the governor’s budget is how he wants to pay for those increases. His budget would redirect $73.6 million of the general state aid towns currently receive and also nearly eliminate state funding to help school districts pay to bus students to and from school.

“We don’t support increasing education funding at the expense of another important grant,” said Fleischmann, D-West Hartford. “There was widespread agreement that this proposal was not the way to do it… We didn’t think it was fair.”

City and town leaders — 70 of whom rallied against the governor’s budget at the state Capitol complex Wednesday  — agreed.

Torrington Mayor Ryan Bingham, a Republican and also president of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, told reporters that the Education Committee’s budget bill is “the first step in rejecting the governor’s proposal.”

Jim Finley, the executive director of the coalition of city and town leaders, calls the committee budget, “The best we could have hoped for.”

The education committee bill also makes significant changes in how the $50.7 million that Malloy wants to increase on education spending would be dished out. Instead of sending 95 percent of the new funding to the state’s 30 lowest-performing districts, the committee decided instead to direct two-thirds of the new money to the 10 worst districts.

Torrington Mayor Ryan Bingham, flanked by mayors from across Connecticut: They prefer the Education Committee’s proposal over that of the governor.

The changes also mean that state funding will be directed to towns with lower property values. The governor’s proposal would have determined a municipality’s ability to pay by equally weighing property values and the income of those who live in the district.

The change means districts like Norwalk Public Schools will receive only an additional $327,000, instead of the $1.7 million Malloy was proposing. The lowest-achieving districts that stand to benefit more from the Education Committee bill are Bridgeport, East Hartford, Hartford, Meriden, New Britain, New Haven, New London, Norwich, Waterbury and Windham. (See the town-by-town breakdown here)

The committee budget does include the governor’s recommendation to delay scheduled increases in per-pupil funding for charter schools. Those potential funding delays caused charter school students and advocates to rally outside the Capitol Thursday, chanting “Keep the Promise.”

Kenny Feder, a policy fellow with Connecticut Voices for Children, said the Education Committee’s proposal is better than the governor’s. His organization released a report critical of the Democratic governor’s budget Wednesday.

“I think it’s a more fair and reasoned approach, but it doesn’t remedy all of our concerns,” Feder said, pointing out that much more new funding is needed than $50.7 million to truly improve education. “The poor cities and towns … would have to plug the budget holes created by these cuts to other aid. This would likely result in increased property taxes, which would hit low-income residents hardest. There’s no reason that education increases for districts that serve our state’s poorest children should be paid for by our state’s poorest families.”

The Education Committee bill now awaits action by the legislature’s spending and revenue committees. The Appropriations and Finance, Revenue and Bonding committees are set to release and approve their budget sometime in the next 13 days.

Charter students and advocates rally for more funding outside the Capitol.

Rep. Toni Walker, the House chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, said no decisions have been made yet.

“We’re still looking at it,” the Democrat from New Haven said Wednesday.

The municipal leaders lobbying in favor of the Education Committee say they are hopeful that Malloy’s cuts to their budgets will be discarded by legislators.

“We are encouraged by our discussions with rank-and-file legislators and committee leadership. They understand the plight of municipalities,” said Finley, of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities. “Leadership on both sides of the aisle indicated they were going to work their hardest to do what they possibly can to protect municipalities. … Their sentiment echoed the Education Committee.”

Asked Thursday how dedicated he is to his proposed changes in how education is funded, Malloy said his education budget reflects his priorities.

“I am cognizant that budgeting — developing budgets — has to be done over a period of months. It didn’t end on the day I presented a budget and probably won’t end until the last week of the session. It’s a work in progress,” he said.

Follow education reporter Jacqueline Rabe Thomas on Twitter @jacquelinerabe

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