Senate leader readies bill to overhaul school funding

Jacqueline Rabe Thomas / CTMirror.org

Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff

Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff hopes to release by the end of the week his bill to drastically rewrite how public schools are funded and to reroute more funding from neighborhood schools when students leave for public charter schools.

The funding that would be lost from charter school enrollment would be made up for with other changes to the formula that would increase education funding for two-thirds of local districts.

“We are trying to get it done this week,” Duff, D-Norwalk, said during an interview on the Senate floor. “We are just dotting our i’s and crossing our t’s now.”

Release of the legislative language also would mean disclosure of the state aid each municipality would receive under Duff’s plan.

Duff has a difficult task ahead of him. With the senate split 18-18, Duff will need every member of his caucus and Democratic Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman’s tie-breaking vote to approve his plan if no Republicans vote for it.

While it remains to be seen if he has the votes, Sen. Gayle Slossberg, a Democrat and co-chair of the Education Committee, is concerned with Duff’s plan.

“I have some concerns about it, but we are all still working to come up with a plan that gets dollars to our neediest communities,” she said during an interview.

Slossberg’s concerns center on Duff’s plan to change how the state calculates town wealth – which measures the capacity of local taxpayers to pay for their schools. Town wealth is an important factor in the formula that determines how state school aid is distributed.

Currently town wealth is based almost entirely on taxable property. This has left officials from places like Norwalk and Stamford complaining that, while the houses in their communities may be worth a lot, their average household income is middle-of-the-pack – and residents are not able to afford a huge tax bill to fund schools. Duff proposes changing this methodology, using a 50-50 weighting of a town’s taxable property and its median household income. The current weighting is 90-10.

This change means more impoverished communities would not gain as much state aid proportionally as better-off communities. A draft run of a funding formula that looks to be nearly identical to the one proposed by Duff was compiled by the School Finance Project, and Norwalk stood to gain $24.8 million when the new formula was fully phased in over six years, a 162 percent increase.

By comparison, Hartford, would get $6.8 million more, a 3 percent increase. New Haven would land $11.8 million more, a 6 percent increase, and Bridgeport $26.9 million more, a 14 percent increase.

“I think it’s really important that we get money to our neediest districts. A change in distribution that sends money to communities with high property wealth, whereas there are communities with nearly no property wealth and are really struggling, is a challenge for me,” said Slossberg.

She also takes issue with how Duff proposes funding charter and regional magnet schools.

Since charter, magnet and other choice schools don’t have a local tax base and are primarily supported by state funding, Duff proposes the state calculate how much each local district spends to educate a student on average and then withhold one-quarter of that amount for each student who leaves for a magnet or charter school. The withheld funding would be sent to the school the child actually attends.

Currently districts do not get funding for students who leave for charter schools. However, districts still get state funding for students who leave for magnet schools, which is somewhat offset by tuition that magnets charge the sending districts.

No legislative language has been released for Duff’s proposal, though the senator has been willing to answer questions from the Mirror on what he hopes will be included in the bill when it is released – perhaps by the end of this week but no later than next week, he said.

On Wednesday, he said there have been no significant changes from the proposal he outlined last week. Read that story here.

The impetus for overhauling how schools are funded is a Superior Court judge’s ruling last September that the state’s current method of distributing school aid is irrational and unconstitutional.

The State Senate chamber in Hartford.

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