It seems like a reasonable standard: No town shall receive less money from the state to help run its schools than it did in the previous year.
But in practice this means several Connecticut school districts in the wealthiest towns — towns that have fewer high-need students — are receiving more money from the state than they would otherwise be entitled to.
Forty-three towns — including Darien, Easton, Greenwich, New Canaan and Westport — will this school year collectively receive $20.8 million more than dictated by the formula that is intended to direct state money to school districts, according to data from the Connecticut State Department of Education.
Some advocates and legislators are now questioning the wisdom of ignoring the formula as they work to close a $1.1 billion deficit in the upcoming fiscal year.
“When we talk about getting a formula that takes into account poverty and works for the whole state, you can see where we’re challenged here,” Sen. Beth Bye, the co-chairwoman of the legislature’s powerful budget-writing committee, told the budget chief of the education department Tuesday. “We haven’t had the courage — I’m not putting it on you — the courage to promote a school reform effort like Massachusettes that has said, we’re going to start by making sure districts are differentially funded based on the poverty and the challenges that they face.”
Frustrated that so many districts are overfunded while needy districts remain significantly underfunded, the state’s Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission is circulating a list of the over- and under-funded towns around the state Capitol.
West Hartford and Waterbury top the list of the most underfunded districts, based on student need, the town’s wealth and ability to raise revenue locally. Overall, the state’s formula is underfunded by $738 million.
“That overfunding — that’s money that’s not going to the towns that are underfunded,” said Orlando J. Rodriguez, a legislative analyst with the commission, a state-funded advocacy group. “When towns are held harmless, that’s a problem… That overfunding is just going to get worse and worse and worse. The formula is not broken, the problem is we don’t fund schools based on the formula.”
If the current trend continues, the commission estimates that in four years the overfunded districts will be collectively receiving $38 million more than the formula says they need.
“That’s a quarter of a billion dollars over 10 years that’s not going to these other districts,” Rodriguez said.
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. But Bye points out that nearly all of that additional money has gone to the state’s 30 lowest-performing districts, even though poverty and need continue to grow in many of the other 160.
“The other districts got virtually nothing,” said Bye. “We have to know that there are more districts as well.”
Bye’s sentiment has support from some of her colleagues.
“I agree with everything she said,” Sen. Gayle Slossberg, the co-chair of the legislature’s Education Committee, said after Bye’s remarks to the education department’s budget chief.
Rep. Toni Walker, the House chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, said during a forum hosted by the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus in January that as she works to create a budget that closes the $1.1 billion deficit, some tough decisions are ahead.
“We have a lot of things to look at in education, because we can’t fund everything. We have a basic bottom line and we have a billion-dollar deficit,” the Democrat from New Haven said. “So somehow there are going to be winners and losers, and we have to figure out where is our commitment to the winners and to the losers and we have to follow through with it.”
The proposed budget for education that Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is asking the legislature to adopt flat funds the state’s main education grant.
“We must maintain our commitment to funding public education. While other states may choose to balance their budgets on the backs of public schools, Connecticut will not,” Malloy said during his budget address last month.
But the governor’s budget does not guarantee schools are held harmless, as numerous residents, advocates and legislators pointed out during a day-long hearing at the state Capitol complex Tuesday.
Malloy’s budget proposes cutting about $20 million in the upcoming fiscal year from various state education grants that largely help the neediest districts pay for things like longer school days, full-day kindergarten, early reading interventions and summer school.
But fixing the overfunding is political, and persuading legislators to vote to cut aid to their towns is unlikely.
“We’re overfunding some towns, but it’s not a simple problem to fix because that would mean cuts to cities and towns,” Walker said.