Some momentum builds for changes to education aid formula

State Rep. Andy Fleischmann has had a change of heart over how the state should fund public schools.

www.CtMirror.org

Andy Fleischmann, House chairman of the Education Committee

Three weeks ago the longtime Education Committee chairman was convinced that the state had an adequate formula for distributing education aid, and the problem was simply that the state needed to fully fund it.

Since then, he has spent hours listening to public officials and residents about how the current funding setup impacts their schools. He also has heard from members of the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding, the group of parents and local educators suing the state for allegedly underfunding schools, who are adamant that the state must first figure out what it actually costs to provide an adequate education – especially in high-poverty districts – and then go from there.

Currently, funding levels are determined by how much the state has to spend.

“I am persuaded,” Fleischmann, D-West Hartford, explained during an interview Monday. “I do think it’s important for us to do that cost study.”

His Republican and Democratic chairs in the state Senate agree.

“We should be doing that study,” said Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, during an interview.

“It’s very important for us to make decisions based on facts and data,” said Sen. Gayle Slossberg, D-Milford.

While momentum among legislators seems to be building for a cost study – like those done in ArkansasKansas, Maryland, New Mexico and Pennsylvania – the governor’s office does not support the idea.

“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,” Ben Barnes, the governor’s budget director testified last month.

And on Monday, the state’s education commissioner raised a new concern while testifying on legislation that would mandate completing a cost study by next February: Her department doesn’t have the staffing to help with a study.

“Studies done by independent parties still consume a lot of our time,” Dianna Wentzell testified.

Instead, Wenezell urged the committee to make changes this year that would align with the vision Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy laid out in his budget proposed in early February.

Malloy proposed a massive redistribution of state education aid from middle-income and affluent communities to the most impoverished municipalities. However, in most towns, those increases would be wiped out by another of his proposals — requiring towns to begin picking up one-third of the cost of providing teachers’ pensions.

Leaders of the Education Committee don’t support his plan.

A plan to redistribute aid

Instead, the committee is considering legislation to end the so-called “hold harmless” provision: a rule that no town shall receive less state school aid than it did in the previous year.

In practice this provision 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.

If towns are again held harmless next school year, 55 municipalities — including Darien, Easton, Greenwich, New Canaan and Westport — would collectively receive $18 million more than dictated by the state’s current formula, which is supposed to take into account student need and town wealth in directing school aid.

Bruised by a scathing Superior Court decision that labeled the way Connecticut distributes school aid as “irrational,” momentum is building at the state Capitol to finally end the practice of holding towns harmless.

On Monday, the Education Committee heard testimony on legislation that would redistribute that $18 million to the most underfunded towns. Groton, Clinton and Stonington stand to lose the most aid and Wethersfield, Danbury and Stratford would be the biggest winners. (See town-by-town below)

The Republican and Democratic leaders of the committee agree that this bill is a more reasonable approach to funding schools than the formula Malloy is seeking.

“It provides some protection,” Fleischmann said of the goal to ensure towns aren’t hit too hard by cuts and the most underfunded towns are funneled at least some additional aid.

Bridgeport, Hartford and New Haven – all the state’s lowest achieving school districts – would all get less than $500,000 in increased funding under the legislation.

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