Connecticut needs a rational, fair, school funding system

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Three weeks ago, in his sixth State of the State Address, Gov. Dannel Malloy laid out his five “budget principles” and called for a “more predictable, more sustainable, and more transparent” Connecticut budget that “prioritizes funding for core services.”

Rightfully, one of the core services Malloy listed was public education.

For Connecticut to thrive in an ever-changing global economy, it is essential that our public education system provides ALL students with the resources they need to succeed in the classroom, and prepares them to enter college or the workforce.

For proof of the importance of education to Connecticut’s economy, one needs to look no further than GE’s recent relocation announcement. The multinational company cited access to workforce talent and top-tier educational institutions as being among the top factors in its decision to move its corporate headquarters to Boston.

However, for Connecticut to prioritize education and achieve the governor’s budgetary goals, the state must fundamentally change the way it funds its public schools.

The fact is, Connecticut’s current school finance system is arbitrary. Not only is the state’s current use of 11 different formulas to fund public schools illogical, none of the formulas truly take into consideration the learning needs of students or the schools that serve them. This is particularly apparent with the Education Cost Sharing formula—this is the formula that is supposed to be used to distribute approximately $2 billion a year in in state dollars to local public school districts.

Beginning with the 2013-14 school year, Connecticut stopped using the ECS formula to distribute state education aid because the state did not have enough money to fully fund the formula’s phase-in plan. Rather than modifying the formula or adopting a new one, Connecticut started making block grants to each city and town to help fund public schools. As a result, the current school finance system fails to take into consideration changes in enrollment, student needs, and community wealth. Instead, these block grants to cities and towns are primarily based on historical precedent (the amount of money the district received last year).

This is particularly problematic because Connecticut’s school districts are changing. While enrollment in most Connecticut school districts has been declining over the past 10 years (total student enrollment in Connecticut has declined by approximately 35,000, or 6 percent), enrollment has increased in many Fairfield County communities, such as Stamford (873), Fairfield (1,027), and Danbury (1,326). Statewide, enrollment in higher-need districts is generally increasing or remaining stable, while enrollment in other districts is generally declining.

Connecticut’s arbitrary funding of public schools also extends to the state’s schools of choice. Connecticut uses 10 different formulas (or statutory per pupil amounts) to fund school choice programs, including magnet schools, the Connecticut Technical High School System, charter schools, and vocational agriculture programs. Each of these formulas was created independently of the others and none of them take students’ learning needs into account.

Not only is arbitrarily funding Connecticut’s local public schools a poor budgetary practice, it also results in an inequitable system. In 2014-15, students who attended Bridgeport Public Schools (a district with a low-income student population of 100 percent and an English Language Learner population of 14 percent) received $13,883 for their education and students in next-door Fairfield Public Schools (a district with a low-income student population of nine percent and an ELL population of two percent) received $15,187.[13] Students in Bridgeport Public Schools even received less funding for their education than similar districts, like New Haven ($17,060; 59 percent low-income and 14 percent ELL) and Hartford ($18,734; 77 percent low-income and 18 percent ELL).

With a 2016-17 deficit projection topping $500 million, and nonpartisan analysts predicting a $1.7 billion deficit for the 2017 budget year, Connecticut cannot afford a school funding system that does not serve our state’s students well and does not answer our state’s budgetary, workforce, and economic needs.

As Connecticut transitions to a “new economic reality,” our policymakers will need to make difficult decisions about our state’s top priorities and how to fund them in smarter ways.

Connecticut can begin by creating a school finance system that is logical and funds all students fairly. To do this, we need one (NOT 11) funding formula that funds all students based on their learning needs. We need a system that distributes education dollars in a way that is consistent, predictable, efficient, and transparent. And we need a system that takes community wealth into account and works within the confines of the state’s budget.

With significant fiscal challenges, Connecticut must make budget decisions thoughtfully, not arbitrarily. It’s time we start with our school finance system.

Katie Roy is the director and founder of the Connecticut School Finance Project, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization working to identify solutions to Connecticut’s school funding challenges that are fair to students and taxpayers.

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