Gov. Ned Lamont during his filmed budget address talking about school aid.
Gov. Ned Lamont during his filmed budget address talking about school aid.

Gov. Ned Lamont’s budget asks the legislature to expand a school busing program to about 100 students living in Norwalk and Danbury so they can attend neighboring suburban schools, but it also pauses the state’s school-funding formula by skipping the $117 million increase in state aid that was scheduled to go to local districts over the next two fiscal years.

The move is sure to displease numerous legislators and groups who have been calling for a major increase in state education spending.

Stalling the increases in the Education Cost Sharing grants will help Lamont close the state’s deficit, which tops $2 billion over the next two fiscal years.

[Lamont uses federal dollars and reserves to boost local aid, avert tax hikes in his new budget]

Instead of increasing state aid, Lamont is relying on the $443.2 million the state was required to funnel directly to districts to meet their needs. Districts were told Feb. 1 how much they will receive.

“We will continue to maintain our commitment to the Educational Cost Sharing formula, with additional monies provided by federal resources, so every kid gets the best opportunity at the starting line of life, regardless of ZIP code,” Lamont said during his filmed budget address to the General Assembly.

“This is an injection of a significant amount of funding that we believe will be adequate to get them through the next two years,” Melissa McCaw, the governor’s budget director, told reporters during a budget briefing Wednesday. “The fact that the federal government was pouring dollars into education allowed us to utilize those funds to support school reopening … Obviously, we have a $4 billion gap you’re going to leverage resources that are coming from Washington to address areas of need, and the governor felt that it was a significant amount of resources that would allow us to get through the next two years.”

The governor is still holding onto $61.7 million in federal funding that must be spent on education, and the administration has not yet announced how it intends to spend that money.

The school-funding formula increases that the governor wants to pause over the next two years was approved in 2017 by both Republicans and Democrats before he was in office. It was designed to narrow the vast disparities in school spending by ZIP code by funneling millions more each year to struggling districts. It was approved as pressure mounted for the legislature to finally stick to a formula for distributing school aid as a school-funding case made its way to the Connecticut Supreme Court.

That formula phased in an estimated $40 million a year, primarily to the state’s most distressed districts, each year over 10 years by taking into account actual school enrollment and a town’s ability to pay for their schools themselves. As the fourth year into that phase-in approaches July 1, Lamont is asking the legislature to pause that phase-in and put off factoring student enrollment and towns’ ability to pay for their schools. Instead, he proposes flat-funding every town.

Leaving school funding essentially on auto-pilot over the next two years, as Lamont recommends, is sure to disappoint numerous groups and legislators who have been calling on the state to either fully fund the phase-in now or speed it up. The legislature’s non-partisan budget office estimates that it would cost $270 million more a year to fully fund that phase-in now.

“Black, brown, low-income and working-class families heard one thing loud and clear today: Connecticut doesn’t care about us,” Jamilah Prince-Stewart, the executive director of FaithActs for Education, a coalition of religious leaders and parents, said shortly after the governor released his budget plan. “That painful fact remains that this proposal fails to fix a funding formula that is racist and classist… Budget are moral documents. In this time of immense suffering, the governor is disinvesting in our communities. Prolonging phase-ins and using one-time federal dollars to plug systemic holds tells us, ‘Ye the building is on fire, but I won’t let you out yet.’”

The $61 million increase in education aid that districts have received so far since the formula was adopted in 2017 hasn’t come close to helping the state’s poorest towns keep up with the increased spending in the state’s wealthiest districts.

The new federal money, several say, should be used to pay for staff and protective equipment to keep schools safe during the pandemic as well as provide extended days, more tutoring and summer school for those who have fallen behind during the pandemic.

[In budget speech, a governor caught between a desire for social justice and fiscal restraint]

Religious leaders in December called on the governor to call out the “racist and classist” and discriminatory way the state funds the struggling, segregated schools in their neighborhoods. Top legislators have regularly said the solution to the pervasive school-funding inequities can’t just be drastic increases in spending, and the solution rests in property tax reform, since such taxes are the primary source of funding schools in Connecticut. The state’s superintendents association, a powerful lobby at the state Capitol, released a report in January calling on lawmakers to improve the current funding trajectory, suggesting the state build in a 2.5% annual increase in spending for public schools. On Monday, the leaders of the legislature’s Education Committee and the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus said the scheduled increases are not steep enough and called on the governor to do more.

“We need some really big changes here in the state of Connecticut,” said Rep. Robert Sanchez, D-New Britain, and House chairman of the Education Committee. “I promise you that I’m going to look at these new formulas, look at these new proposals, and we’re going to have to come up with something that is going to be attainable and that we can do now and not wait seven or eight years down the road.”

But the Democratic governor’s plan not to overhaul how schools are funded may be the most expedient way to avoid the drama that almost always comes with trying to reorganize how the state funds schools. His predecessor, Dannel P. Malloy, used an incredible amount of political capital during his tenure trying to funnel much more aid to schools in the most impoverished communities.

Lamont’s strategy to rely on federal funding is not as fiscally risky as the path Gov. M. Jodi Rell followed during the last major recession, when she used $540 million in federal stimulus funding to cut state spending on education aid over two years. Lamont, however, didn’t have that option, because when the federal government sent states the school funding in January, it required that state funding for education remain proportionately the same.

As local municipalities struggle with their budgets, it is unclear whether these additional dollars can be used for local officials to cut their contributions towards education. While state law requires towns to set aside at least the same amount as they budgeted for in the current year, it also provides most districts several opportunities to reduce their contributions.

The funds can definitely be used to cover the growing costs to operate schools, a point Lamont made during his budget address.

“The additional education funding also will allow our towns and cities to hold the line on property tax increases, doing more to keep Connecticut affordable for you,” he said.

Property taxes account for 56% of all K-12 revenue in the state – putting Connecticut in second place nationally for its reliance 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 haven’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 CT Mirror 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.

The governor does propose some additional support to help shore up struggling municipal budgets by sending half the revenue raised by legalizing and taxing recreational marijuana to municipalities, as well as allowing local officials to levy a 3% tax on sales.

Expanding school busing to the suburbs

The governor is proposing a somewhat practical solution in two of the cities in Connecticut experiencing rapid increases in school enrollment. He is proposing to begin offering about 100 Danbury and Norwalk students the opportunity to be bused to neighboring schools, but the success is dependent on neighboring districts opening seats for city students.

That program — called Open Choice — was created decades ago in an attempt to offer students attending segregated city schools the opportunity to enroll in high-performing schools in neighboring towns.

Connecticut’s schools and municipalities remain among the most segregated in the country.

The program currently is available only to students in Bridgeport, New Haven and Hartford — and the number of seats suburban districts have offered to city students has grown at a snail’s pace. About $2 million in state funding set aside for the Open Choice program goes unused each year.

“With many of our urban schools crowded and suburban schools with extra capacity, my budget proposes an expansion of the Open Choice program, beginning in Norwalk and Danbury, so these kids and those in surrounding communities can go to school in a more diverse environment with greater opportunity,” Lamont said.

The paltry growth in participation in Open Choice in many wealthy disproportionately white suburban schools is the result of some district officials saying the state reimbursements are not enough to cover the costs of the new students. Some have pushed the state to require towns to offer more affordable housing, so that lower-income families can send their children to better schools, but neither the legislature nor the governor have shown an appetite for that approach.

While several prominent Democratic legislators are proposing such changes happen this year, including linking funding for school construction with affordable housing, those reforms are not part of Lamont’s budget package.

Instead, Lamont proposes the state spend $7 million to renovate a school in Westport and $10 million to build a new school in North Branford.

Westport — a district that spends 46% more per student than Bridgeport and offers few opportunities for poor families to move into town — is emblematic of wealthy communities across the state. The district first opened its doors six decades ago to 25 Bridgeport students. This school year, Westport has 67 Bridgeport children attending its schools, which is 1% of Westport’s total enrollment.

Historical participation numbers in Open Choice, paired with the declining enrollment numbers in districts, suggest that the incentives are not working to lure many communities, especially in the Bridgeport and New Haven region. (See how many seats districts have offered since 2006-07 by clicking here.)

Between the 2006-07 and 2019-20 school years, suburban districts opened their doors to 1,022 more city students. All of that growth has been in the Hartford region, however, which has provided more robust financial incentives for districts to participate because of the various desegregation court settlements. In New Haven and Bridgeport, for example, there is a flat, $2,500 per student reimbursement, while reimbursements in Hartford start at $3,000 and climb to $8,000 for districts that offer more students a seat.

Lamont’s budget does not propose increasing how much the state will reimburse suburban districts for each Open Choice student they enroll.

Higher education

The governor’s budget proposal does not offer additional state aid to help Connecticut’s public colleges and universities, which have been dealing with a budget crisis brought on by the pandemic.

Like K-12 education, Lamont relies on federal funding.

“The new federal Higher Ed Relief Fund will provide $140 million for public higher education, which covers higher COVID-related costs and support for Connecticut students who are having a difficult time affording their education during these tough economic times,” Lamont said.

The University of Connecticut faced a $76 million projected budget deficit for fiscal year 2021 but shrank it to $8 million by cutting $48 million in institutional costs — through hiring freezes, pay cuts, furlough days and other cost-saving measures — and receiving $20 million in federal coronavirus relief.

The additional federal relief will close the remaining $8 million gap, and the rest of the funds will help cover its $18.3 million projected deficit for fiscal year 2022, according to UConn spokesperson Stephanie Reitz.

The Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system has a total deficit pegged at $69 million, including a $52.4 million deficit at the universities and a $16.4 million deficit at the community colleges. The Board of Regents projected in December budget deficits of about 6% in each of the next two fiscal years — provided they receive a 2% bump in state aid the first year and nearly 5% more in the second.

“Revenues since [October] have dropped by approximately $29 million, primarily because of lower enrollment and lower occupancy in our residence halls, and driven by the pandemic,” said CSCU spokesperson Leigh Appleby, adding that the Board of Regents will have updated projections by next week. “We are still working on new spending side projections and accounting for new federal funds.”

The governor recently announced and addressed in his proposal on Wednesday that he is introducing legislation to help improve enrollment at the state’s public colleges. Connecticut’s 12 community colleges saw a 15% drop in enrollment this fall — higher than the four regional state universities, which saw a 5.5% drop.

The legislation would make the completion of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, mandatory for high school students. The governor also plans to establish a guaranteed admissions program to the Connecticut State Universities and make advanced placement courses more accessible.

“It ensures the students complete the student aid applications that will bring millions of additional federal dollars to our residents and educational institutions,” Lamont said. “It also streamlines the admissions process at our state universities to ensure the students in every district get connected to high-quality state higher ed programs.”

Lamont’s budget also does not pay for the expansion of the Pledge to Advance Connecticut, or PACT, a program for low-income residential students to take community college classes debt-free.

The proposal would instead provide $6 million to the program for the next two fiscal years, which “maintains the level of funding committed by CSCU in FY 2021 to ensure that participating students can continue in their programs.”

Connecticut legislators have recently backed proposed legislation legalizing sports betting and online gambling in hopes that its revenue will fully fund the PACT program.

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.

Adria was CT Mirror's Education and Community Reporter. She grew up in Oakland, graduated from Sacramento State where she was co-news editor of the student newspaper, and worked as a part-time reporter at CalMatters. Most recently Adria interned at The Marshall Project, a national nonprofit news organization that reports on criminal justice issues. Adria was one of CT Mirror’s Report For America Corps Members.

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