Diloreto Elementary & Middle School in New Britain Jacqueline Rabe Thomas / www.CtMirror.org

For years Massachusetts has been doing a better job of educating students from poor homes than Connecticut – and spending less per student to do it.

Massachusetts students from low-income homes are among the highest achieving in the country in math and reading and above average in science. Their Connecticut peers are among the nation’s worst performers in math and science and are middle-of-the-pack in reading.

In both states spending on education has increased greatly over the last 25 years – with one key difference: Massachusetts tied increased state aid to ambitious reforms it credits with spurring remarkable advances in student achievement. Connecticut relied more heavily on local educators to use increased state aid to improve things.

“If you give more money and wait for the reform, reform will never come,” said Paul Reville, who was Massachusetts’ education secretary from 2008-2013 after being the executive director of a business-backed advocacy organization often credited with getting the landmark education reforms approved in the Bay State in 1993. “How you spend money is important. This gets into the balance of state and local control.”

The differing results in the two states raise questions about the interplay of money and other factors as components of an overall formula for improving educational outcomes among high-need students.

Among other things, Massachusetts:

  • Created a sense of urgency about dealing with underperforming schools, fueled by economic arguments about an unprepared workforce and a decision by the state’s Supreme Court that the state was failing to meet its constitutional obligation to educate all students.
  • Used its increased funding to force higher expectations on local districts, give local officials more authority to achieve them, and strengthen the hand of state education officials to intervene when local efforts fell short.
  • Acted more decisively and 25 years earlier than Connecticut on key reforms, so the state was able to take advantage of better economic times to fund increased spending on education.
  • Used a cost study to determine the level of resources actually needed to provide an adequate education in low-performing districts.

Seizing the moment

Timing was a key factor in the Massachusetts educational course change in the 1990s. The economy was rebounding from a recession and so the state had money to invest in education.

Also, the Massachusetts business advocacy group released a damning report in 1991 saying the state’s education system was failing to provide too many people with the skills and knowledge needed to be productive workers and informed citizens. Connecticut business leaders produced a similar report in 2010.

In 1993 the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled against the state education system in a landmark decision that said the state had an enforceable duty to educate all its students. A similar suit, challenging whether Connecticut’s efforts to educate students in low-income school districts are constitutionally adequate, is now before its Supreme Court.

Students pick out books at an elementary school in Lawrence, Mass. Jacqueline Rabe Thomas / CtMirror.org

In addressing the balance of power between state and local education officials, the Massachusetts court ruled that, “While it is clearly within the power of the Commonwealth to delegate some of the implementation of the duty to local governments, such power does not include a right to abdicate the obligation imposed on magistrates [the executive branch] and Legislatures placed on them by the Constitution.”

A few days after the Massachusetts court ruling, the state’s education reforms were signed into law.

Reville said the confluence of events produced “the perfect storm of urgency,” and the court decision ensured that additional aid would become a reality.

“We were helped tremendously by the court holding our feet to the fire,” said Reville, now a professor at Harvard University.

“Massachusetts made it like they are going to the moon-type thing,” said Connecticut Education Commissioner Dianna Wentzell. “Just like President Kennedy was going to the moon, they were going to be first in education. That takes focus.”

The ‘grand bargain’

From 1992 to 2000, state spending on education more than doubled in Massachusetts, from $1.7 billion to nearly $4.1 billion, and aid for the state’s most impoverished communities was drastically increased. Local education leaders were given more authority so they could improve their schools themselves.

Massachusetts Commissioner of Education David Driscoll at Brighton High School in 2004. Getty Images

But in what became known as “the grand bargain,” the legislative reforms raised educational standards and gave the state education department more power to step in when school districts fell short. Among other reforms, the state would no longer grant high school diplomas to students who could not pass 8th-grade-level tests in English and math.

With the large influx of state aid came a significantly lightened burden on local property taxpayers to fund school costs, especially in the low-income communities since three-quarters of the new aid headed their way. Overall in Massachusetts, local revenue accounted for 62 percent of education spending in 1992 compared with 49 percent by 2000.

It was this promised windfall in state aid that served as the leverage for changes that otherwise would have been dead on arrival, say those who were close to the legislative debate.

“The fact that the state committed $2 billion in new money shut everybody up. Nobody could complain when you are putting $350 million, $400 million, $450 million in new money each year into education. You just can’t complain,” David Driscoll, a former Massachusetts education commissioner who oversaw implementation of the reforms for more than a decade, said in an interview. “We would all have to drink a little castor oil… Yes, there were plenty of things for people to dislike, but there was even more for people to like for us to move forward.”

Next door in Connecticut, the increases in state aid were not accompanied by reforms in standards and accountability comparable to those in Massachusetts.

Total spending on education increased at almost the same rate – with a similar share of new state funding going to the most impoverished districts. But statewide the majority of the increases came from local revenue. Between 1992 and 2000, local revenue steadily accounted for about 53 percent of total education spending.

Today, state and federal funding in both states picks up a sizable share of the costs to run the schools in impoverished districts. In Lawrence, Mass., local funding last school year covered just 4 percent of the district’s spending. In New Britain, Conn., local spending accounted for 32 percent. Both are among the most needy districts in their respective states.

Missed opportunity

Massachusetts’ decision to strike the grand bargain in the early 1990s gave it a head start on reform and allowed it to take advantage of the generally strong economic growth from the early 1990s until the recession in 2008.

In Connecticut, under then-Gov. John Rowland, a Republican, education aid increased by about 2.5 percent year to year during his tenure from 1995 to 2004. Rowland’s approach to school reform emphasized school choice. He proposed state-funded vouchers parents could spend on a school of their choosing, and charter schools that wouldn’t have to follow the same rules as traditional neighborhood public schools.

His voucher proposals never were approved, but he did succeed in getting the state’s first charter schools to open. The investments that allowed a relatively small number of students to attend charter schools, however, paled in comparison to the spending increases that were taking place in Massachusetts.

Rowland’s successor, Gov. M. Jodi Rell, in 2007 did propose increasing the state income tax and using much of the proceeds to increase education aid – but without any strings attached.

“Gov. Rell was pretty much indifferent to what was going on in the schools,” Mark McQuillan, the Republican governor’s education commissioner from 2007 to 2011 said during a recent interview. Before coming to Connecticut, he served as a deputy commissioner in Massachusetts. “Local control is important, but it has to be balanced with some state involvement. Connecticut has not found that balance. Local control is embedded into the culture there.”

The legislature ultimately approved increasing the state primary education grants by $256 million over two years – a 16 percent increase. However, it rejected Rell’s proposed income tax increase and instead relied heavily on taxes associated with temporarily high gas prices. By 2010, after the Great Recession hit, Connecticut was using temporary federal funding aimed at helping states weather the economic downturn just to level-fund education.

Rell also appointed a commission of business leaders to study Connecticut’s education system. The group made a series of reform recommendations, including ones similar to those in Massachusetts, but its report, which came in 2010 as the state was facing a deficit of more that $3 billion, did not have the same impact. Repeated state deficits over the last decade have stymied efforts to drastically increase aid.

After studying Massachusetts, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy attempted a similar approach in 2012 when he proposed the state increase state education aid – albeit more modestly – in return for controversial reforms that would drastically increase state involvement in schools that failed to improve.

He also was a strong supporter of charter schools. But enrollment in charters is still small, rising from half a percent of all public school students at the end of Rowland’s term, to 1 percent under Rell to 2 percent last year.

Gov. Malloy in a classroom in Norwalk in 2013. Jacqueline Rabe Thomas / CtMirror file photo

There was a wave of pushback, however, and Democratic legislative leaders failed to back the most controversial reforms, which were scaled back in the bill that was ultimately approved. Many teachers and their union leaders objected that the proposed reforms focused too much on holding them accountable for poor student outcomes and not enough on providing the resources to better educate students.

Still, over the next three years education aid for the lowest-achieving districts increased by $50 million a year (about 9 percent for Bridgeport, New Haven and Hartford).

With a weak economy and massive state budget deficits, the governor has since pushed to redirect more state aid to the state’s lowest-performing school districts. Earlier this year he proposed funneling $300 million in existing state education aid away from high- and middle-income communities to the 30 worst-off. That was a non-starter at the state Capitol among legislators unwilling to turn the budget ax on their own districts.

“Spending more money on education – targeted at the communities that are educating the poorest students and our students that present the greatest challenges – is the smart way to go. That’s what I am trying to do – but without more money,” Gov. Malloy, a Democrat, said during a recent interview.

“If some future governor has more money, they would be wise to invest it in those communities,” said Malloy.

What role does money play?

Aside from its use as a bargaining chip to shepherd through controversial reforms, debate rages about how money is best used to improve educational performace.

In general, Connecticut and Massachusetts are both wealthy states that spend well above the national average to educate each student.

Overall, Connecticut public schools spend $2,500 more than those in Massachusetts for each public school student they enroll — a gulf that grew over the last decade, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education’s research arm.

Since local property taxes play a sizable role in paying for schools, however, those numbers largely reflect the fact that affluent school districts in both states are able to afford more spending. Both states most affluent school districts are among the best-performing in the nation.

A look at the average per-student spending in the 10 worst-performing districts in each state shows wide variations in spending. However, the average spending is 5 percent higher in Connecticut – $16,175 per-student in Connecticut’s lowest-performing districts compared to $15,247 in Massachusetts. In Connecticut, that spending is 2 percent below the state average while in Massachusetts it is 3 percent above.

“There is certainly ample room for discussion and investigation into how we use resources in schools and asking, ‘Is this the best bang for the buck?” said Jeffrey Villar, executive director of the Connecticut Council for Education Reform, which lobbies at the state Capitol for the state’s chief business coalition, the Connecticut Business and Industry Association.

Villar pointed to the recent turmoil an urban district’s superintendent faced when she tried to redirect funds for teacher aides to add a teacher to significantly reduce class sizes. Faced with staff and union pushback, the local board of education rejected the plan. Plans to save money by closing schools where enrollment has declined significantly often are defeated.

Jeffrey Villar, executive director of the Connecticut Council for Education Reform. A framed copy of the group’s report hangs on the wall. Jacqueline Rabe Thomas / CtMirror.org

“There is a political problem for school leadership to make changes,” Villar said during an interview.

In Massachusetts, the 1993 reform law shifted the power over almost all hiring decisions from the elected school boards to the superintendents. It also made it easier for the superintendent to dismiss principals by no longer allowing them to bargain collectively.

How much money is enough?

Neither increased authority – nor high per-student spending – guarantees high-achieving school districts.

Massachusetts rates its school districts on a one-to-five scale, with one being the highest-achieving. The scores are based on how much progress students are making. Those ratings show that spending per student varies drastically for the districts ranked as the highest-performing. However, none of the 20 highest-spending districts were rated below a two. (This does not include vocational schools, which inherently spend more because of their mission.)

As for nine of the 10 lowest-performing districts, their per-student spending hovered around the state average, despite enrolling a demonstrably greater number of high-need students. Boston is the exception with spending well above the state average.

Many high-performing districts aren’t highest-spending

Jake Kara / CtMirror.org

While more money doesn’t guarantee improved outcomes, not having enough leads to worse ones.

“Money alone is not going to get you where you need to go, but the absence of money is going to cause very serious problems,” said Driscoll, the former Massachusetts commissioner. “In Massachusetts, the additional dollars made a difference.”

He pointed to Holyoke, where many elementary classes had 37 students. The additional money allowed hiring more teachers to make class sizes reasonable.

“Since 1993 Massachusetts has really invested heavily in K-12 education – invested both in terms of policy efforts and in terms of dollars,” John Papay, an assistant professor of education and economics at Brown University, said during a presentation last fall at the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education. “I don’t think it’s so controversial to argue that these investments have paid off.”

“You have to provide adequate resources if you want everyone to perform at a higher level,” Reville says. “You have to figure out what would it take to get the job done, to provide everybody with a Ford-Taurus type model of education, not a Cadillac and not an el cheapo car.”

To figure out how much districts need to provide the necessary teachers, instructional materials and other resources, Massachusetts did a cost study. It’s an approach numerous states have taken since – but not Connecticut.

“People are afraid of cost studies because the target can be set so big and be unrealistic,” said Reville.

That concern was on full display earlier this year at Connecticut’s state Capitol complex during an exchange between the Senate chairwoman of the legislature’s Education Committee and the governor’s budget chief.

Ben Barnes puts air quotes around “costs” that would be determined by a study Jacqueline Rabe Thomas / CtMirror.org

Such studies, Ben Barnes, secretary of the governor’s Office of Policy and Management, said, “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,” Barnes said. “I reject that.”

So Connecticut’s formula for determining state aid is based on an amount – known as the “foundation” – that each district should be able to spend per student. The state calculates its portion of the foundation amount by taking into account a municipality’s wealth and how many students from low-income homes it enrolls.

The foundation number is picked by the state legislature, however, and is typically driven by politics and how much state legislators are willing and able to spend on education rather than any analysis of actual costs.

CT facing court challenge

Now Connecticut’s system of distributing education aid — as well as the educational outcomes in impoverished districts — are being subjected to the same constitutional scrutiny that helped prompt the Massachusetts reforms 25 years ago.

Last fall Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher issued a ruling that constituted a broad indictment of state education policy and standards and the huge achievement gaps between students in impoverished districts and peers in more affluent ones. His decision decried a system that “has left rich school districts to flourish and poor school districts to flounder.”

The judge stopped short of saying that total state spending on education was insufficient to meet constitutional standards, but he found the state’s method of distributing school aid irrational and thus unconstitutional. He ordered the state to develop and follow a new funding formula, to set higher standards for high school graduation, to revamp teacher evaluations and to set rational criteria for funding local school building projects.

He criticized the legislature and state education officials for “standing on the sidelines imposing token statewide standards.”

“Change must come,” the judge wrote.

His decision is now on appeal to the state Supreme Court. But since then, the Connecticut General Assembly has passed, and Malloy has signed into law, a new funding formula aimed at complying with the judge’s order and sending more money to struggling school districts — but starting next year.

The new formula would gradually send an additional $400 million over the next 10 years to the state’s 33 lowest-performing districts – a 30 percent increase. The plan pays for that partially by redistributing aid from higher-performing districts, a politically difficult task that has been insurmountable in the past.

“Legislators have been unwilling to turn the knife on themselves,” said McQuillan, Connecticut’s former education chief.

The legislature ignored Moukawsher’s calls to increase state involvement in districts where most students are persistently multiple grades behind and to end the “legislative free-for-all” for school construction aid.

In fact it increased the state’s share of the cost for a new elementary school in Greenwich from 10 to 80 percent – a $26 million boon for the state’s wealthiest community.

Massachusetts update

In 2015 the Massachusetts legislature ordered an update to the 1993 education cost study. The study concluded that “the system is fiscally strained” and recommended more funding for employee health insurance, special education, school transportation and English learners

Since then, legislators have twice approved putting a “millionaires tax” — an extra 4 percent tax on incomes over $1 million — on the ballot in 2018 to raise an estimated $2 billion they promise will go to transportation infrastructure and education.

Despite pushes from the left to increase taxes on the rich, such proposals have not gained support from legislative leaders of either party in a time of economic stress in Connecticut.

Nonetheless, Connecticut leaders remain optimistic.

“We are not that far behind [Massachusetts] in general terms,” said Malloy. “I think we have a ways to go – but, you know, we are showing the way.”

Coming tomorrow: How the state drove improvement in one struggling Massachusetts school district. Read the entire series by clicking here.

The Mirror’s exploration of ways to close persistent gaps in educational achievement is supported in part by a grant from the Solutions Journalism Network and the Nellie Mae Foundation. Click here to view more of the projects they have funded. The Connecticut Mirror retains sole control over the content of this coverage.

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Jacqueline Rabe Thomas

Jacqueline was CT Mirror’s Education and Housing Reporter, and an original member of the CT Mirror staff, joining shortly before our January 2010 launch. Her awards include the best-of-show Theodore A. Driscoll Investigative Award from the Connecticut Society of Professional Journalists in 2019 for reporting on inadequate inmate health care, first-place for investigative reporting from the New England Newspaper and Press Association in 2020 for reporting on housing segregation, and two first-place awards from the National Education Writers Association in 2012. She was selected for a prestigious, year-long Propublica Local Reporting Network grant in 2019, exploring a range of affordable and low-income housing issues. Before joining CT Mirror, Jacqueline was a reporter, online editor and website developer for The Washington Post Co.’s Maryland newspaper chains. Jacqueline received an undergraduate degree in journalism from Bowling Green State University and a master’s in public policy from Trinity College.

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