Feds say Connecticut ‘shortchanges’ low-income students

A New Haven middle school in New Haven

www.CtMirror.org

A New Haven middle school.

The federal government said Friday that Connecticut “shortchanges low-income, minority students.”

Connecticut and local governments are spending 8.7 percent less per student in the poorest school districts than they are in the most affluent school districts, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education.

That translated into a district like Bridgeport or New Haven spending $1,243 less for each student during the 2011-12 school year than a district like Darien. (See how much your district spends here.) High-need districts spend on average $842 less per student than the statewide average.

The federal government also highlighted Connecticut as having one of the largest spending disparities between districts with large numbers of minority students and their neighbors.

“Sadly though, in too many places today right now around the country, we still have school systems that are fundamentally separate and unequal,” U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan told reporters during a conference call Friday. “Students from low-income families are fundamentally being shortchanged when it comes to state and local education funding.”

Nine states have larger disparities than Connecticut, including Arizona, Illinois, Missouri, Nevada, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Virginia.

Duncan blames the disparity — which has grown nationwide over the last decade — on heavy reliance on local property taxes for school funding. In Connecticut, 52 percent of education spending is provided by municipalities, the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities reports.

“This is a problem of states failing to provide poor and minority students and their teachers — hardworking educators — the resources they need and deserve,” Duncan said. “Children who need the most seem to be getting less and less. Children who need the least seem to be getting more and more. There is something unfair, educationally unsound…frankly [it’s] un-American in what is happening.”

Federal law requires state education departments to ensures that students from low-income families are receiving “comparable” education services. It has not yet been determined in Connecticut whether districts are providing a comparable education, but a trial on the subject is set to begin this fall.

The U.S. education secretary said a loophole in federal law allows districts to circumvent using actual spending to compare districts.

The Center for American Progress — a left-leaning public policy think tank — said this loophole was caused by allowing districts to compute comparability using average teacher salaries or teacher-to-student ratios rather than actual expenditures on teacher salaries. Therefore, districts that are able to spend more on each teacher can attract more experienced educators.

“The ‘comparability loophole’ — that is at the heart of school funding inequities,” the think tank said this week.

Their analysis of federal data concluded this disparity impacts 181 schools in Connecticut that enroll almost 58,000 students. They estimate these schools would need to spend $160 million more to make funding equivalent to that in the most affluent districts.

Attempts to change how comparability is measured have been stalled because of disagreements between conservative Republicans and the Obama Administration over changes to overall federal education law.

Meanwhile in Connecticut, the Supreme Court has ruled that the state is responsible for ensuring that every student is afforded a minimum educational standard and “suitable” educational opportunities. The trial to determine if the state is providing schools in the lowest-income districts with that opportunity — and the appropriate funding — is scheduled to begin Oct. 7.

“They key of that case is that there are such huge disparities,” said James Finley, an official with the coalition of mayors, teachers, school boards and parents that is suing the state.

Collectively, municipalities will receive $156 million more from the state this school year than they did six years ago, a 1.4 percent increase each year, on average. Nearly all of that additional money has gone to the state’s 30 lowest-performing districts, which enroll higher rates of minority and students from low-income families.

In his proposed budget for next year, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy flat-funded the largest source of state aid to towns, the Education Cost Sharing Grant. He also would cut about $20 million from various state education grants that largely help the neediest districts to pay for things like longer school days, full-day kindergarten, early reading interventions and summer school.

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