Christine Stuart photo
Elijah Adonai of Meriden and Charlie Dow of New Haven talk in favor of reforming school financing (Christine Stuart photo)

The co-chairman of the legislature’s Education Committee said he hasn’t been able to find one person who can adequately explain what a 116 page bill modifying the formula the state uses to fund public, charter, and magnet students actually does.

This is the seventh year Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, is co-chairing the Education Committee, and after reading the bill he said he’s still not able to ascertain what the bill will do to the state’s Education Cost Sharing formula.

That may be one of the reasons the Education Committee didn’t hear any testimony on the bill this year. Instead, the Appropriations Committee, co-chaired by Rep. Toni Walker and Sen. Toni Harp, agreed to hold an informational forum on the bill Thursday evening which attracted hundreds of charter and magnet school students from around the state.

“I support the governor’s notion that we take a little time with the Education Cost Sharing formula and think through what should be the best measure,” Fleischman said Thursday afternoon outside the hearing room.

Proponents of the school finance reform bill say the state has delayed these changes for far too long and every year they delay another group of students passes through the system, possibly at a disadvantage. They said of the legislation will gradually shift the cost away from local school boards and to students, so when a child leaves a public school to attend a charter school the money will follow them. But it will follow them based on an entirely new formula that will be drafted over the next two years. Since the formula would be created from scratch some lawmakers struggled to understand what it would mean for their communities. Would they lose money?

Harp, Walker, and Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, all lawmakers from New Haven, said they’re not happy with the status quo and believe something needs to be done sooner rather than later.

“I support the need for the conversation,” Holder-Winfield said. “I think there are people who have opposition to this particular bill that need to be brought into the conversation.”

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Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, D-New Haven (Christine Stuart photo)

Harp and Walker seemed to share that sentiment.

“The more things change, the more they stay the same,” Harp said as the hearing dragged into the late evening. “We’ve asked generations of children to wait to be undereducated, in a system that costs a lot of money, in a knowledge-based economy.”

Alex Johnston, CEO of Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now (ConnCAN), said the legislation isn’t as radical as opponents are making it out to be. He said the bill applies the new funding formula in the next biennium. He said the first two years the issue of how the foundation formula will be calculated and what student learning attributes should be factored into the equation will be studied, which gives local public school districts time to prepare.

“Not a person came up here to testify today that didn’t believe the system is broken,” Johnston said around 8:30 p.m. Thursday evening. “This issue is an issue of distribution among 169 communities.” He said the idea behind it is to have the funding follow the student to whatever school they attend and get it away from a community based funding model, which has been tinkered with in order to accommodate specific communities over the years.

But officials from the Connecticut Education Association and the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities say it will inevitably create winners and losers when it comes to local schools and how they’re funded.

Christine Stuart photo
Lindsay Malcolm of Lebanon (Christine Stuart photo)

Jim Finley, executive director of CCM said the legislation favors about 8 percent of the charter and magnet school students in the state when 92 percent of students are educated in the public school system. He said the current formula is already underfunded by $700 million and he would rather wait for Malloy’s task force to study the issue than move forward with this legislation.

Ray Rossomando, the Connecticut Education Association‘s legislative liaison, said the group pushing this legislation is a charter school advocacy group which has pushed similar legislation in other states. He said the formula the bill creates “changes who the winners and losers would be.”

“Where is the extra money going to come from,” he said. “If we you have money to put into the system then you have an ECS formula that already works.”

The question about whether the state is currently spending for the same student twice and could save money by passing the legislation was also raised.

“We have a situation where we’re now doubling paying for students who attend a charter school or who now attend a magnet,” Danielle Smith of the Black Alliance for Education Options said. “We’re not talking about spending more money. We’re talking about spending smartly.”

Rebecca Adams, an Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding—the organization which brought a lawsuit against the state for inadequately funding public education—said she doesn’t believe so. She said the state is not sending money both to a district and to a charter school or open choice school.

But Johnston told the committee that districts are not adjusting their enrollment counts, so the reality is the state is paying for the same student twice because of the lag time in the payments.

Adams and Johnston also disagreed on what factors such as poverty and English as a second language should be factored into the formula.

“This bill is actually a baby step for where we need to go,” Johnston said. “We will not be able to fix this system overnight.”

It’s unclear if the Appropriations Committee plans on having a public hearing on the bill or doing anything further with it this year, but the Education Committee is expected to pass a bill Friday which creates a task force to study the school financing issue as a compliment to the task force proposed by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.