For more than two centuries, Connecticut has been colloquially known as “The Land of Steady Habits.” But our state’s tradition of arbitrarily, illogically, and inequitably funding its public schools is a bad habit Connecticut desperately needs to break.
Unfortunately, Gov. Dannel Malloy’s recent budget proposal does not go far enough to address the fundamental flaws of Connecticut’s school finance system. Instead, the proposal continues the decades-old bad habit of funding education through a maze of unconnected, arbitrary formulas and does not ensure that all of Connecticut’s schools and districts have the resources they need to ensure equitable access to educational opportunities for all of our state’s more than 500,000 students.
Malloy’s proposal rightfully ends the funding of local public school districts via block grants based on little more than historical precedent and the political power of legislators by proposing the state use a formula to distribute the Education Cost Sharing (ECS) grant to towns. Malloy’s proposal also changes the metric used to represent low-income students in the ECS formula from eligibility for free and reduced-price lunch to the more accurate metric of participation in HUSKY A (Connecticut’s children’s Medicaid program).
Additionally, the proposal sets Connecticut on the path to fixing its special education finance system by separating ECS funding from special education funding, making the amount of funding the state is contributing to special education more transparent, and helping to ensure Connecticut is able to meet its funding obligations under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
However, while the governor’s proposal drives additional state education dollars to some of Connecticut’s highest-need communities, it falls far short of the leap forward that our state truly needs. Not only do the governor’s proposed school finance changes not provide the “opportunities for success” he noted at the beginning of last Wednesday’s budget address, but they do not accurately recognize the student learning needs of middle-income communities and reduce the combined total of ECS and special education aid to some higher-need communities, such as New Haven.
Even for communities receiving additional state education dollars under the governor’s proposal, such as Hartford, the new funds may not go toward students and schools at all, as the budget proposal allows municipalities facing “financial hardship” to apply to the State Board of Education for a waiver from their Minimum Budget Requirement, which requires cities and towns to spend at least the same amount on education as they did the previous year, plus any new state education aid.
(An analysis of the governor’s proposed school finance changes is available at ctschoolfinance.org/formula-analyses.)
Additionally, Malloy’s tweaked ECS formula does not fully account for the learning needs of the students our schools and districts serve. The proposed formula lowers the need weight for low-income students from 30 percent to 20 percent and does not provide a much-needed weight for Connecticut’s more than 35,000 English Learners, who often need additional resources to achieve at similar levels to their non-need peers.
Most troubling, however, is that e governor’s plan leaves in place Connecticut’s tangled web of 11 different school funding formulas. Funding Connecticut’s public schools based on 11 different formulas, each created independently of the others, is not the answer to our state’s school finance challenges. Rather, it is the continuation of an illogical, arbitrary system, which fails to take into account the needs of students, their schools, and their communities.
Maintaining the state’s 11 different school funding formulas would mean maintaining an unpredictable, inconsistent system for allocating state education dollars. A system that not only fundamentally treats students, schools, and communities unfairly, but also pits town against town to the point where our state has school districts threatening lawsuits against each other to determine how a student’s education will be paid for.
Simply put, our state needs a school finance system that makes sense.
While the governor’s proposal starts to move in the direction of more equitable school funding, the proposed tweaks to the ECS formula amount to little more than another Band-Aid attempting to heal our state’s fractured school finance system.
For far too long, our state has attempted to fix our school funding problems without actually addressing the foundational issues. Connecticut cannot afford to keep doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Continuing to do so is not only the definition of insanity; it’s poor policy.
It’s time for our state to untangle the web of 11 different funding formulas and address the fundamental challenges of school funding that our state has struggled with for decades. It’s time for our state to use a unified funding formula based on the learning needs of students and the needs of their communities. It’s time our state had an equitable, transparent, and logical school finance system.
It’s time Connecticut kicked its bad habit.
Katie Roy is the director and founder of the Connecticut School Finance Project, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization working to identify solutions to Connecticut’s school funding challenges that are fair to students, taxpayers, and communities.