Faith leaders, legislators and community leaders pray in support of education funding equity at the State Capitol in Hartford on Monday. Yehyun Kim /

In the 19th century, the famed educational reformer Horace Mann said, “education, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of men.” This remains as true as ever. However, what happens when the education system in our country and state fail to provide an equal education to all students? How then, could education act as the great equalizer it was intended to be? 

The state of Connecticut consistently ranks among the best in the nation for education, claiming the sixth spot on US News and World Report’s 2021 leaderboard. Given that Connecticut outspends the national average per-pupil by more than $5,000 annually, one might expect the state to outperform its peers in the classroom.

 Unfortunately, these statistics paint a far rosier picture than the actuality of Connecticut’s public education system. The reality is reflected in Connecticut’s education disparity, which sits at number 5 —behind only Montana, South Carolina, Alaska, and Hawaii. 

Inequity in education is rooted in the way Connecticut funds its public schools, a calculus that is directly proportional to local property taxes, which account for 58% of public school funding. The meager remainder is provided by state funds which are allocated using a variety of formulas, one in particular designed to account for districts with greater need: the Education Cost Sharing Formula (ECS). The ECS includes a 30% boost in funding for low-income students and a 25% boost in funding for students who are English-learners. Ostensibly, students with greater need are taken into account by the ECS. 

Although the ECS attempts to tackle socio-economic disadvantages in the state’s public schools, Connecticut’s ranking in education disparity is testament to the ECS’s limited impact. The reason for this is simple: the funding targets laid out in the ECS are not legally enforced. Instead, under Connecticut state law, states are only required to fulfill 10% of the ECS requirements for Alliance schools (the 31 poorest school districts) and 1% of the ECS requirements for all other schools. Therefore, certain districts receive as little as 30% of the ECS target amounts. While the grant could, in theory, fill the funding disparity created by property taxes, the ECS requirement is often under-met, eroding its potential. 

This combination of funding—a variable property tax and an arbitrary ECS fund—means that adjacent school districts are often completely different worlds. The case study of Bridgeport and Fairfield illustrates this phenomenon. In Fairfield, the median household income is $139,122, compared with only $46,662 in Bridgeport, a $92,460 difference. Moreover, Fairfield’s per-capita taxable property is assessed at a whopping $265,428, nearly four times greater than Bridgeport’s $68,918. With the majority of a school’s budget coming from property taxes, it is no surprise that income disparity creates inequity in education.  

In a troubling trickle-down effect, Per Pupil Expenditure (PPE) in the Fairfield School District, is $19,596, while Bridgeport School District’s PPE is $14,718. Evidence “overwhelmingly supports a causal relationship between increased school spending and student outcomes.” Further research reveals that for every $1 invested into low-income students’ education, eventual earnings for those students will increase by over $1. According to Connecticut’s Department of Education, Fairfield students achieved performance target levels in English/Language Arts, math, and science state summative assessments, while Bridgeport students lagged behind significantly in each category. The end result is an education system where 96% of students will graduate high school in Fairfield, compared with only 76% in Bridgeport. 

To solve this issue, legislators should rely on a few strategies. In the short term, the General Assembly should require that the state meet 100% of the ECS grant target numbers. Additionally, in order to more accurately measure the needs of each district, legislators should revisit Proposed H.B. No. 6827. Introduced in 2019, this proposed bill will ensure a more accurate headcount of low-income students per district through the direct certification process, which is essential in calculating a fair ECS grant target number. 

In the long term, however, Connecticut should reconstruct the mechanisms used to  fund education in the state. Instead of relying primarily on property taxes, Connecticut should pool funds on a state level and distribute them to districts on a per-student basis with considerations for student needs. 

This model is not without successful precedent. In 1997, Vermont implemented a policy of this nature (Vermont ranks 45th among states in education inequality). Known as Act 60, Vermont’s landmark legislation had a few key components. It created a two-tier system designed to fund education less dependently on property wealth, while prioritizing funding for disadvantaged communities. The results speak for themselves. Of the 252 districts in Vermont, 229 ended up receiving greater funding because of the passage of Act 60, almost eliminating the correlation between a district’s funding and its wealth. As expected, outcome disparities in education have declined, and Vermont now boasts one of the best K-12 education systems in the country. 

Where you live and the wealth of your district should not determine the quality of the education that you receive. In order to ensure this, it is critical for the State of Connecticut to enact fiscal reforms in our education system. Please, contact your state legislators so that education can truly act as the great equalizer envisioned by Horace Mann.  

Dylan Council and Linda Youn are both first-year students at Yale College and members of the Yale College Democrats.