To understand the philosophical tug-of-war over how Connecticut should fund its public schools, look no further than a recent exchange between the governor’s budget chief and the co-chair of the legislature’s Education Committee.
The co-chair, Sen. Gayle Slossberg, D-Milford, wanted to know how Gov. Dannel P. Malloy determined in his proposed budget that the state’s primary education grant should send local schools $1.6 billion.
“We should develop a foundation level that says this is what you need, this is what the cost is to educate a child in this state. And then we tinker with that based on children who need additional services or the poverty of their [district] or community or other things,” Slossberg, D-Milford, told Ben Barnes, secretary of the Office of Policy and Management. “Is there any educational data that says to us this is the right amount for the children in the state of Connecticut?”
“I disagree with the premise of your question,” Barnes responded.
Barnes thus put himself at odds with Slossberg and others who believe that the state should provide enough education aid to meet the actual cost – as determined by a study – of providing children with an adequate education.
A coalition of educators and municipal leaders suing the state has been asking the state to complete such a study for more than a decade. That Coalition for Justice in Education Funding argues it costs far more to provide an adequate education to students from low-income families than from wealthier ones, and that the state’s current funding setup is falling well short of providing enough so these high-need students get what they require.
Barnes told Slossberg and other members of the legislature’s Appropriations Committee on Tuesday that such studies “are rather spurious academic approaches to determine how much it costs to educate a pupil.” Barnes held his hands aloft to put air quotes around the word “costs.”
“And then we should be obliged to fund a formula based on that, I think, pseudo-scientific, derived adequacy number they would like us to produce.”
“I reject that,” Barnes said. “I believe that it is the proper purview of the legislature to determine what is the appropriate and adequate amount of support that the state would like to place in its K-12 system.”
And with that statement, the Malloy Administration rejected the key request of the plaintiffs in the school-funding lawsuit. That lawsuit will soon be heard by the Connecticut Supreme Court, following a scathing decision by a Superior Court judge last fall that concluded that the state is spending enough on education overall, but the way it is distributing the aid is irrational.
“I think if the decision is that the legislature wants to put an extra billion dollars into education, first of all I don’t disagree that that would be money well spent,” Barnes said. “But I think that is really, ultimately a political deicision about the use of available resources. I think to pretend that there is a formula or a scientific study that can produce a defensible per-pupil number that is better than just looking at what average per-pupil spending was in recent years, I think is misguided, and I don’t support that approach to education funding formulas.”
“I just think that we have a disagreement on this particular point,” she responded. “I understand that you consider historical context to be an accurate measure of what is appropriate. And I would prefer that we actually have some data of what is appropriate. We agree to disagee.”
“Fair enough,” Barnes responded.
The plaintiffs in the school funding lawsuit estimated the state could do a study of education costs fairly quickly for about $250,000.
The plaintiffs’ most recent study found it would cost Connecticut an additional $1.22 billion to properly fund education for 445,508 students in the 100 school districts that it determined to be under-resourced. That study found that 97,000 students in 66 districts are attending adequately funded schools.
Malloy, a Democrat, is proposing instead that the General Assembly level-fund education spending overall, but redistribute that existing pool of money to give more to the most impoverished districts where taxpayers are least capable of raising revenue locally to fund their schools.
Malloy’s proposed education aid formula helps ensure districts are able to spend at least $8,990 for each regular education student from state assistance or local revenue. That number is adjusted by factoring in student poverty and town wealth to determine how much the state will send each district.
“Is there a rational basis for $8,990 other than the fact that we’ve got a bad budget, we’ve got a pot of money and this is how we’ve divided it up and so we ended up with 8990. Is there an educational basis for 8990 being the foundation level?” Slossberg asked Barnes.
“I don’t believe there is,” Barnes responded. “It is very much in line with levels of spending that the state has contrubited to regular education historically. So I don’t think it is out of context or unreflective of what those costs are today.”