Last year the town of Greenwich, the state’s wealthiest town, received $3.42 million from the State’s Educational Cost Sharing (ECS) funding formula. Meanwhile, at the other end of Interstate 95, New London – one of Connecticut’s poorest cities – received about $22.94 million in ECS funds.
At first blush, all seems fair and appropriate.
Furthermore, recognizing the importance of helping Connecticut’s cities and towns fund local services, our leaders exempted municipal aid from the chopping block last year and this year. And for the next fiscal year, thus far, the “sacred cow” called municipal aid has remained untouched as well.
Local officials from Greenwich, New London, and across the state must be breathing a huge sigh of relief that Connecticut’s elected officials on both sides of the aisle seem to be leaving municipal aid off the target list of cuts, despite the fact that our state continues to flounder in the greatest fiscal crisis since the Great Depression.
But other “vital” services are not fairing as well.
Last weekend, Senate President Donald Williams and the Senate Democrats – with the support of House Speaker Chris Donovan – offered up almost $150 million in budget cuts including cuts to a number of human services, health care, and education programs.
The Democrats’ plan cut vision and dental services for the poor, instituted higher co-payments for low-income working families who get their health care through the Husky plan, and cut funds for school-based health clinics, teen pregnancy prevention, and early childhood education programs.
But municipal aid was, for all intent and purpose, exempted from cuts as Democrats and Republicans proclaimed that ANY cut to municipal aid would be unfair, disastrous, and wrong.
But unfortunately this complete unwillingness to even discuss municipal aid is nothing short of a cover up of one of Connecticut’s darkest political and fiscal secrets.
If municipal aid really were to be allocated based on need, it would rightfully take its place at the top of the funding priority list. However, the sad – even shocking – reality is that some of Connecticut’s most important funding formulas have been so corrupted that the allocation of scarce public funds is no longer remotely based upon which communities actually need the funds.
The Education Cost Sharing Formula (ECS) is a prime example of what has happened to the way dollars are distributed in Connecticut.
Over the past 10 years, the ECS grant to New London has risen 20.1 percent from $19 million to nearly $23 million. During the same period the grant to Greenwich has risen by 1,002 percent from $310,000 to more than $3.4 million.
In town after town the shift has been significant, as public funds have been allocated not to the poorest and most needy towns, but to those with the greatest resources. While Connecticut’s poorest towns still get the lion’s share of state funding, the fact that the state’s wealthiest towns have seen such significant growth is a testament to how far the present system has shifted from the original funding formula.
During this past decade, Hartford’s ECS grant has risen by 19 percent, while Windham’s has gone up by 25 percent, according to the state Department of Education. But meanwhile, Darien’s ECS grant, has skyrocketed 1,532 percent; Westport’s has grown by 1,320 percent; Weston’s is 858 percent higher; and Wilton’s ECS grant is 3,212 percent higher than it was only 10 years ago.
The Education Cost Sharing grant has been corrupted. ECS was Connecticut’s primary mechanism for making sure our towns have the resources they need to provide our children with a quality education. This landmark financing system was created in 1988 as a response to the 1977 Connecticut Supreme Court ruling that the state has a constitutional duty to provide its children with a quality education. ECS was intended to correct the unconstitutional system described in the Horton v. Meskill case.
As a member of the Education and Appropriations committees, I had the honor of having a seat at the table as we determined the fundamental purpose of the new ECS grant, which was to use state funds to help equalize spending for education and improve educational outcomes.
The formula was designed to address the financial needs of communities by taking into consideration the students’ needs and wealth of each of Connecticut cities and towns. Student need was defined by the level of poverty, test performance, and need for English as a second language programs while a town’s wealth was determined by the property tax wealth of the community as well as the per capita and median household income of its residents.
When it was adopted, Connecticut’s ECS formula stood out as a national model of how states could begin to successfully respond to the disparities between wealthy and poorer towns. But through the years, with little public or media attention, and without fully understanding the impact of their actions, the ECS formula was changed or modified in almost every legislative session since it became law.
The General Assembly made especially significant modifications to the formula in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Then, starting in 2005, the so called ECS reforms were institutionalized when grant allocations were determined exclusively by calculating a set annual increase over the grant the town received in 2005. Today, no town’s grant is truly determined by the formula that was designed to ensure fairness and equity in Connecticut’s education system.
And with each year the disparity and variation from the original formula have grown more distinct.
Although many state officials failed to recognize the impact of corrupting ECS, those who supported and advocated educational opportunity did not. In November 2005, the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Educational Funding (CCJEF) filed a new lawsuit against the state and its system for funding education. The suit pointed out that “by failing to maintain an education system that provides children with suitable and substantially equal opportunities, the state is violating their constitutional rights” and has fostered an “educational underclass.”
This other shoe finally dropped just a week ago, on March 22, 2010, when the Connecticut Supreme Court issued its ruling in the CCJEF case. The Court overturned a lower court ruling and determined that Connecticut’s constitution not only requires fair funding, but also good outcomes. The court declared that Connecticut’s public schools must “provide their students with an education suitable to give them the opportunity to be responsible citizens able to participate fully in democratic institutions, such as jury service and voting, and to prepare them to progress to institutions of higher education or to obtain productive employment and otherwise contribute to the state’s economy.”
The impact of this decision will be dramatic and fundamental changes will be needed.
With this in mind, the time has come for the governor and the General Assembly to confront our municipal aid system. In these difficult economic times we simply cannot afford to give away scarce public dollars to our state’s wealthiest towns. It is more than just bad public policy. It is actually moving our state further and further from its constitutional responsibilities.
Jonathan Pelto served as a member of the House of Representatives from 1984-1993. He was Deputy Majority Leader and member of the Appropriations Committees during the income tax debate of 1991. He presently works as a strategic communications consultant.