As students and teachers get ready for a new school year, Connecticut begins its ninth week without a state budget. For school districts and towns across the state, the budget stalemate and the governor’s Revised Executive Order Resource Allocation Plan bring uncertainty, confusion, and frustration.
Unfortunately, when it comes to state education funding, instability and inconsistency are not a new occurrence in Connecticut. For nearly four decades, our state has struggled to equitably fund its public schools, and now Connecticut counts itself as one of only four states in the nation not currently using a formula to distribute state education aid.
Connecticut has arrived in this position because instead of addressing the school funding challenges our state faces, state and legislative leadership have too often resorted to temporary fixes, patchwork policies, and flawed formulas. The budget proposal released by House Democrats on August 23, unfortunately, continues this trend by failing to include a comprehensive school funding formula that is logical, equitable, or even remotely realistic.
While there are certainly aspects of the House Democratic budget proposal worthy of discussion and debate, its formula for distributing state education aid — a formula which would require the state to increase state education aid by more than $800 million above the current level and take more than 50 years to fully fund — is not one of them.
On its face, the revised Education Cost Sharing (ECS) grant formula in the House Democratic budget proposal may appear to be a step toward progress and equitable funding. For example, the formula includes weights for low-income students and English Learners (driving resources to students with greater learning needs) and uses a state share ratio that more accurately provides a complete picture of a community’s wealth, with property wealth (determined by a town’s Equalized Net Grand List per Capita) being weighted at 60 percent and income wealth (determined by a town’s Median Household Income) being weighted at 40 percent.
However, a deeper analysis into the House Democratic formula to distribute education aid to local school districts reveals it is far from a solution to Connecticut’s long-standing school finance challenges.
The House Democratic proposed ECS formula has multiple flaws, from keeping special education funding “incorporated” into the ECS grant’s foundation to failing to address Connecticut’s complex, illogical web of 10 other funding formulas used to distribute state dollars to other types of public schools. However, these flaws pale in comparison to the proposed formula’s fully-funded cost and its phase-in plan.
To fully fund the House Democrats’ proposed ECS formula, the State of Connecticut would have to spend over $800 million more than it is currently spending on education. To put that in comparison, to fully fund the most recent version of the ECS formula, Connecticut would need to spend approximately $600 million more. The General Assembly stopped using that formula after just one year because it could not fund it. Despite this fact, House Democrats have proposed a formula that would cost $200 million more than the formula the state already cannot afford to fully fund.
Even if one ignores Connecticut’s fiscal and economic state and chooses to believe that a formula that would cost an additional $800 million to fully fund is an achievable goal, the House Democrats’ proposed formula has another major flaw that is even harder to ignore: its phase-in plan.
Under the House Democrats’ proposed phase-in plan, towns receiving less than their fully-funded grant would be phased-in at a rate of less than two percent over the two-year biennium budget period. That means it will take more than 50 years for a district to see its full funding from the formula. So, by the time this year’s first graders are entering retirement, their school districts may be finally fully-funded under the House Democrats’ proposed formula.
This is not a legitimate attempt at a logical or responsible school funding formula. Not only does the House Democrats’ proposed formula fail to address Connecticut’s long-standing school finance challenges, it falls far short of creating the “rational, substantial and verifiable” school finance system that Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher called for in his September 2016 ruling in CCJEF v. Rell.
House Majority Leader Matt Ritter (D-Hartford) was correct in his statement accompanying the release of the House Democrats’ budget proposal: “[O]ne of Connecticut’s greatest assets is our public schools and the quality of education our students receive.” Unfortunately, the school funding formula in the House Democratic budget proposal does not match the same quality.
All of Connecticut’s students deserve an equitable school finance system that is based on their learning needs and the needs of their communities. A system that distributes education dollars in a way that is consistent, predictable, efficient, and transparent, all while meeting the needs of the state’s budget.
Connecticut must leave budget gimmicks and unrealistic, irrational formulas in the past, and move forward with a comprehensive solution that addresses the fundamental problems with the state’s school finance system. To enact a formula that takes more than 50 years and $800 million more to fully fund is doing neither.
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, taxpayers, and communities.