School funding reform: Three tough questions facing lawmakers
Leaders at the state Capitol agree that changing how the state distributes public school aid is necessary – but that consensus quickly crumbles when specific changes are floated.
This stalemate is happening at a critical juncture: the state’s finances are in crisis and the Connecticut Supreme Court will soon hear arguments in a lawsuit over whether the state is spending enough to educate students in its most-impoverished school districts.
So will Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and the General Assembly, controlled by Democrats by the slimmest of margins, overhaul how the state funds public schools?
Here are the three major questions they face.
Make changes now or do a study?
A coalition of statewide organizations that represent principals, parents, school boards, superintendents and teachers – heavyweights at the state Capitol on education policy – gathered in Hartford Wednesday to call for a task force to study education financing and come up with recommendations for the 2019 legislative session.
They said such a study, which has been done in numerous other states, is necessary to determine just how much it actually costs to educate children in different circumstances.
“We want to make sure that money follows the needs, and children have different needs. Schools may have different kinds of programming, so what are the needs of our schools and the needs of our kids in those schools,” said Karissa Niehoff, the leader of the Connecticut Association of Schools, which represents principals. “We need a cost study to first understand what it really costs to educate children based on their needs.”
Hogwash, says Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.
“I don’t know what the hell they are thinking about, to tell you the truth,” the Democratic governor said when asked whether it makes sense for a task force to study the cost to educate students. “We have school systems that don’t have the money necessary to educate their children. The idea that we would wait makes no sense at all. It’s a stupid idea.”
Legislative leaders agree that changes need to be made this year.
“The question is do we still have education funding reform in our budget? The answer is yes. And we are certainly going to be pushing education funding reform,” Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, said during a recent interview. “We need to keep the pedal to the metal on the issue.”
Duff pointed to a scathing critique in a Superior Court judge’s ruling last fall, which found the current formula for allocating school aid “irrational” and thus unconstitutional. It is an appeal of that ruling that the Supreme Court will hear as early as September.
“The clock is ticking. So we need to make sure that some major reform is incorporated,” he said. “We need to get the job done this year.”
House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, expressed a similar sentiment.
“We are still committed to attempting to do it,” he said during an interview. “I would hope that within the budget discussion that we will be able to come up with some changes…. What we need to do is all get into a room and come up with something that we can all agree with.”
A long line of task forces have studied how schools are funded in Connecticut. (See here, here, here, here, here and here.) Malloy during his first month in office six and a half years ago pledged “to fix this formula once and for all,” and set up a panel to send him recommendations. Those recommendations included doing a cost study, but the governors’ subsequent proposed legislation overhauling the funding formula did not include one.
The group of parents, teachers and municipal officials suing the state over school funding – the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding – supports a cost study being completed.
The legislature has made incremental changes when it comes to funding schools, but not the kind necessary to meet constitutional obligations, Malloy has regularly said.
“Our state constitution doesn’t say take another two years to placate somebody who doesn’t want to take the big steps,” Malloy said. “The time is now.”
Spend more or redistribute existing funds?
If it were up to Malloy, he would redistribute the state’s existing pool of education funding to give more to municipalities with the lowest-achieving school districts and let them decide whether to spend the money on education.
Currently, two-thirds of the Education Cost Sharing Grant, the state’s principal vehicle for distributing school aid, goes to the 30 lowest-performing districts. Malloy has proposed giving them 78 percent of state education aid. To do this, he proposes providing no education aid to 31 more affluent municipalities.
To justify his pitch that local taxpayers in towns like Greenwich should pick up their entire education cost, Malloy on Wednesday pointed to the huge disparities in tax bases throughout Connecticut – from an average $777,000 per household in Greenwich to $50,000 in New Britain.
“There’s your study,” he said, mocking the education heavyweights. “We have to get to closer parity or get to parity in educating our children, and that’s what our constitution says.”
Others disagree redistributing aid is the path forward and would prefer to simply boost support for troubled districts.
The proposed Republican budget recommends increasing funding for the state’s primary grants for education by about $30 million next year. But about three-quarters of that extra Education Cost Sharing grant spending would be paid for by rolling other state funding from numerous grants that go to the state’s lowest-achieving districts — money that pay for things like early reading interventions, extra services for English learners, after-school programs and extra staff in struggling schools – into the ECS grant.
The changes to the various education grants proposed by the GOP are a mixed bag for some of the state’s lowest-achieving school districts. For example, Bridgeport and New Haven would each lose $2 million while Danbury and Norwalk would each gain just over $2 million.
Republicans have a bit more wiggle room in their budget for spending because they budget for an additional $340 million in labor savings over the next two fiscal years above what the governor has said is realistic in achieving.
Senate Republican Leader Len Fasano said the changes that his party is proposing to state employees benefits are achievable and dismissed the administration saying additional savings aren’t achievable.
“There is one reason why they are saying that: they have a deal on the table,” said Fasano. “You can certainly achieve the structural changes that we are proposing.”
The education stakeholders at the state Capitol Wednesday – many of whom also are members of the coalition suing the state – echoed the suit’s demand to spend more on state schools.
They argued against denying all aid to any district.
“There are poor children in every district. There are needs in every district,” said Joe Cirasuolo, the executive director of the Connecticut Assocation of Public School Superintendents. “The state has an obligation to fund people in every district.”
Duff, the Senate majority leader, isn’t convinced, and supports providing zero aid to some school districts.
“We are trying to navigate that and thread that needle. We are working to find a formula that is essentially flat but does take into consideration concentrated poverty and concentrated English language learners,” Duff said. “In the formula that we are now looking at, some of the towns and smaller communities would receive less than they would now.”
He said the minimum funding level would be set at zero for some towns under his revised proposal, but declined to say just how many towns would lose all general education aid. But, he said, funding for special education would be held harmless from state cuts.
Such a redistribution plan, however, almost certainly would not win enough votes in the House, where the Democrats have only four votes to spare to get a budget passed.
“A redistribution plan on its face is problematic. There’s more suburban legislators than urban legislators,” House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz told reporters on the last day of the regular legislative session. “So a straight budget redistribution won’t work.”
Dedicate a new funding source to education?
Many House Democrats want to set up a dedicated funding source to funnel money education. Aresimowicz said during an interview that his caucus has targeted a sales tax increase or a 1 percent retail food and beverage tax to go toward education.
“So we have options” in budget negotiations, the speaker said. “It really depends what happens at the table for where those options go.”
Such dedicated-funding promises have been made before – and broken soon after by a subsequent governor or legislature.
For example, after a Rocky Hill student died in a school bus crash, the legislature increased the fee drivers pay to reinstate a suspended license to pay for seat belts on school buses. The $2 million the fee increase generates has been raided every year since, and no school buses have been outfitted with seat belts. Likewise, gas tax proceeds that are supposed to go entirely to transportation are often raided.
Legislators are well aware the public might not trust that earmarked money will go toward the stated purpose.
“For too many years, we’ve said, ‘Oh the casino money is going to go to education. Oh, the lottery money may go to education,’ And then we haven’t kept those promises. My caucus has spoken pretty clearly. If we are going to do those kinds of things going forward, we have to ensure that it is going toward the areas that we have said they would,” said Aresimowicz.
The education stakeholders also called for a funding source dedicated to education in low-achieving districts.
“If we don’t have that, we are going to get the solutions that are taped together with Scotch tape and string and Band-Aids. And if we look back at the [existing education fund] formula, not too many people will quarrel with the basis of the original formula,” said Donald Williams, the incoming president of the Connecticut Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, and former senate president pro tem. “The problem is that it was never fully funded and that it never had a dedicated funding stream.”
Malloy has regularly said, however, that the state’s overall fiscal picture cannot be driven by focusing on how to increase state revenue. On Wednesday, he reiterated that after a negotiating session with legislative leaders over the next state budget.
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