Want to fix inequities in school funding? Top legislators say property tax reform solves the problem.
Three years have passed since lawmakers celebrated passing a budget that aimed to narrow the vast disparities in school spending by zip code by funneling millions more each year to struggling districts.
But that $61 million infusion into the state’s primary education grant hasn’t come close to helping the state’s poorest towns keep up with the increased spending in the state’s wealthiest districts, leading religious leaders on Tuesday evening to call on top Democratic legislators to rethink the “racist and classist” way they fund schools. The coalition has invited Gov. Ned Lamont to be their guest next week.
“The purpose of our meeting today is to draw your attention to the pain and suffering of our communities, caused by the racist and classist school funding system based predominantly on where you live, and property taxes, and where your zip code determines your educational future. We don’t believe that should be so,” said Jeremy Williams, a pastor at Phillips Metropolitan CME Church in Hartford, as he kicked off the forum being hosted Tuesday by Faith Acts, a coalition of religious leaders from 80 churches throughout Hartford, New Haven and Bridgeport.
“We thank each of you for the progress you’ve made on school funding, especially in 2017, but we haven’t reached the promised land. The way that Connecticut funds public education is racist, and classist. There are vast spending inequities,” said Iona Smith Nze, a pastor at Bethel AME Church in Bridgeport.
Several participants pointed to the state’s per-student rundown, which shows New Haven spends $18,142 per student compared to almost identical amounts in neighboring Orange and Woodbridge, two communities whose students have demonstrably fewer needs because of housing policies that make it unaffordable for lower-income residents to live there.
In Bridgeport, $15,329 is spent on each student, compared to $19,160 next door in Fairfield and $22,623 in Westport.
“At the beginning of the pandemic, kids in Westport went home with iPads to do distance learning, while kids in the inner city went home with iHopes, where many of the kids in our community hope that they could get a computer and hope that the internet would work and hope that they would have food on the table,” said Danny Bland, a pastor at Mt. Calvary Revival Center in New Haven. “The pandemic didn’t create our educational inequities – we understand that – but they did, however exacerbate them,”
Despite Connecticut’s liberal reputation – and Democrats controlling the General Assembly for the last 23 years and the governor’s residence for nine – the state had one of the largest disparities in education spending between predominantly white and predominantly nonwhite districts, according to an analysis of 2016 fiscal year spending generated by EdBuild, a national think tank that advocates for school funding that levels the playing field. In Connecticut, that study found, districts where more than three-quarters of the students are white spent 17% more per pupil than those districts where fewer than one-quarter are white.
While sympathetic to the financial plight of school districts, several top legislators said during the forum that the solution needs to be broader than the state pouring more money into the education grant. The problem, they said, goes much deeper than that.
“Part of this is the uncomfortable conversation we have to have about property tax and tax reform, generally. We as a state can put additional dollars in [but] those discrepancies that we see between wealthy suburbs and our urban centers isn’t because the state’s not putting in 10 times as much into urban centers, it’s because so much wealth has been concentrated in our suburban areas because they use housing and zoning rules to segregate themselves,” said state Rep. Roland Lemar, a Democrat from New Haven and house chairman of the legislature’s Transportation Committee.
“We need to have a conversation about tax reform and property tax reform. We need to ask more of our high income earners,” Lemar added. “We need to ask more in the way of state government to fix this through property tax reform because we can’t keep putting this burden back on the city of New Haven, the city of Bridgeport … who have so many tremendous needs in their community to make up the difference, when a town like New Canaan can easily just throw a couple extra million dollars into their local schools.”
Property taxes account for 56% of all K-12 revenue in the state – putting Connecticut in second place nationally for relying on local property taxes, according to 2017 data from the U.S. Department of Education. The constant increases over the years in state aid directed largely at the poorest schools hasn’t resulted in a reduction in the share of K-12 spending being covered by local property taxes, state data shows.
That’s likely because of lopsided growth in municipal school spending that favors wealthy communities, according to a CTMirror analysis of data collected by the governor’s Office of Policy and Management. For example, in the state’s 10 wealthiest municipalities, which saw enrollment drop by 2%, spending increased between 2014 and 2018 considerably faster than it did in the 10 poorest communities — 24.3% vs. 13.8% — where enrollment has been flat. Inflation during that time was just 6%, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
State Rep. Steven Stafstrom, a Democrat from Bridgeport and the House chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said there are systemic problems with how schools are funded.
“This does go well beyond education,” he told the religious leaders. “Property tax reform absolutely has to be at the center of this. It’s not just about direct education aid.”
Sen. Gary Winfield, a Democrat from New Haven and Senate chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said reforming the property taxes system is critical to fixing disparities in education.
“We could have the conversation just about the dollars in the way that we normally do and not really have the conversation in a way that it needs to happen,” said Winfield. “So anyone who’s advocating on this [education funding] issue needs to be paying attention to all those issues.”
The leader of the state Senate is also eyeing property tax reform, though he did not mention it during the Tuesday night event.
State Sen. Pro Tem Martin Looney, a Democrat from New Haven and the longtime leader of the state Senate, told the Mirror during an interview last week that he plans to introduce legislation in January that would tack a surcharge onto residential property taxes in communities that don’t allow the construction of affordable housing.
“Some of that money could be used to support affordable housing, and other housing, and other equity-related purposes,” he said.
But it’s an uphill battle to get any bold progressive measure across the finish line because the legislature is controlled by lawmakers who represent the suburbs, a point he highlighted during Tuesday’s forum.
Looney said he is working to convince suburban legislators to vote for increased education aid and other items on his agenda.
“We have to build a coalition with the suburbs,” he said. “We need suburban allies.”
Funding formula calls $38.9 million state spending boost next year
And now the bill has come due to fund the formula many legislators celebrated adopting back in 2017.
That formula requires the General Assembly and Gov. Ned Lamont to spend an additional $38.9 million in the fiscal year that begins July 1, and another $40 million a year for each of the next seven years.
The 10 lowest-performing school districts in the state would get 61% of the additional aid despite those districts enrolling 20% of all K-12 public students in Connecticut. Waterbury stands to gain the most, with $7.1 million more, followed by New Britain, which will get an additional $3.9 million.
But fully funding the formula will be challenging because lawmakers now must close a state budget deficit. The legislature has a long history of adopting lofty funding formulas with promises to finance them in the future and then dialing back when deficits loom.
For example, the formula adopted in 2017 delayed funding increases because the state faced budget deficits.
Lamont, a Democrat, signaled he may support the increases when asked whether the budget proposal he must submit to the legislature in early February will include the $40 million boost in education aid.
“I haven’t gotten into the line items on the budget yet, but I think you know how important ECS was for us in the last round. A: what that meant to the superintendents [to give] some certainty so you can actually budget. Budgeting in the state over the last 10 years has been a little jerky jerky and numbers changed all the time, and it was very late in the day. So whatever we do, we’re going to give people a clear indication of where we are and ECS is really important to me,” said Lamont.
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