The panel appointed to recommend ways to fix the “broken” way the state pays for education is considering a proposal that would boost state spending by $460 million over the next four years.
But with the state facing a deficit, new money will be difficult to come by.
Ben Barnes, the governor’s budget director and co-chairman of the Education Cost Sharing Task Force, would make no commitment Tuesday on whether he would back increased state spending on education.
“It remains to be seen,” he said before the meeting. “Education is clearly a huge priority of the governor’s and I expect you’ll see that reflected in his budget.”
During his first days in office in 2011, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy called fixing the education funding formula a top priority.
“It’s broken, and we all know it… We need to fix this formula once and for all, and we will,” he told the General Assembly in his first budget address.
The governor dedicated 2012 legislative session to reforming teacher tenure laws and turning around low-performing schools, but school financing is still unresolved.
“Let’s finish the job of education reform,” Jim Finley, executive director of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, told reporters at the state Capitol Tuesday, releasing a report outlining the chronic underfunding of education.
The state spent $3.7 billion on education during the last fiscal year, about one-fifth of its total budget. But for the state’s existing funding formula to work as intended, it needs at least an additional $724 million each year, according to top state officials.
State officials did increase state funding for education by nearly $100 million this school year, but much of that paid for new initiatives and requirements. The state’s annual allocation for 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.
The task force is considering new formula recommendations that would, in effect, block new funding for wealthy districts and direct new state funding to the neediest districts.
Sen. Toni N. Harp, co-chairwoman of the legislature’s powerful budget-writing committee and a member of the educaiton task force, said finding new money for education will be difficult but not impossible.
“I think we can almost guarantee that there will be some minor increase in education. It’s going to be difficult to do a lot, but I would be surprised if we don’t do something,” the New Haven Democrat said after Tuesday’s meeting.
A state on a deadline
If the state fails to allay concerns about funding shortfalls, a Hartford Superior Court judge may be the one determining how much the state spends on education.
In March 2010, in a case brought by a group of municipal and education leaders, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that the state must provide an “adequate” education, and it sent the case back to the lower court to determine if the state’s current level of funding is sufficient.
Malloy, the mayor of Stamford before becoming governor, was one of the first local leaders to join that group, the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education.
The trial is scheduled to begin in July 2014, and the Malloy administration has yet to meet with the lawyers for the plaintiffs to discuss a settlement.
“I was expecting a settlement by now… Political will is a big problem,” said Dianne Kaplan deVries, the coalition’s leader. “We really need a court order to force resolution. The [school funding] formula has been a history of broken promises.”
The report by the Conference of Municipalities points out the numerous promises to appropriately fund education that lawmakers have reneged on over the past 40 years.
“Many observers believe that the state is now not even in compliance with the 1977 [state Supreme Court] decision that found that the education finance system in Connecticut is unconstitutional because it relies too heavily on the local property tax,” Finley said.
Local spending covers 51 percent of the cost of education in the state, CCM reports.
But Barnes, the former chief operating officer for Bridgeport schools, disagrees.
“I believe the state is meeting its constitutional obligations for education spending and we will continue to do so,” he told reporters.
The state spends more for each student than almost every other state after factoring in the region’s higher cost of living, according to a national report card released this year by Education Week, a nonpartisan publication.
The task force and the governor have made it clear that new education spending needs to be awarded to towns that need it the most.
“Yes, I would like to see more money, but I don’t have a magic wand,” Malloy told a roomful of superintendents at their annual conference in Southington 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 goverment is not the answer.”
The recommendation the cost-sharing task force is considering would base a town’s need on several factors, including a district’s median household income and the property tax base. It would also update the years-old data the state uses to determine a district’s wealth and student enrollment numbers.
The plan would also link funding to standardized test scores, and direct money to the lowest-performing districts. Task for members noted Tuesday that they want to make sure that as performance improves a district is not penalized with a cut in state funding.
While panel members supported the concept Tuesday, no one was ready to approve the changes until they can see how such changes will affect certain districts.
“It’s time to hold our breaths and look at the town-by-town breakdowns,” Barnes said. “There clearly will be some winners and some losers.”
The impact on a specific district could make or break the proposal when it gets to the legislature, since that will be the first thing any legislator looks at when considering changing the formula.
The panel is also considering major changes in how the state funds special education.
Panel members have backed away from a controversial proposal aimed at addressing the skyrocketing special education costs. That proposal would have required parents who can afford it to help cover their child’s special education services.
Instead, the panel seems poised to move forward with a recommendation in which wealthier districts would pay more to pick up the costs of special education and needy districts less.
Currently, town wealth and need is not factored into state reimbursements for special education.
State law requires that the state help pay any time a special education student’s cost exceeds 450 percent of the district’s average per student cost. However, legislators have capped spending at $142 million, $37.5 million shy of what is needed to fully fund the law. The committee is considering phasing out that capped appropriation over three or four years.
The panel is also considering requiring that the state pick up the full tab for the foster children and other children — about 1,200 each year — whom the Department of Children and Families place into public schools.
The panel plans hopes to finalize its recommendations by Dec. 1.