Just how many task forces and commissions does it take for the state to get school funding right?  Over the 35 years since the CT Supreme Court ruling in Horton v. Meskill (1976), there have been at least ten official tries to get things constitutionally right, politically palatable, and financially affordable. 

These include: 

Notably, all these studies stemmed from school finance-related lawsuits, beginning with the Horton cases (1977-85), Sheff v. O’Neill and its follow-up actions (1989-08), Johnson v. Rowland (1998-03), and now CCJEF v. Rell (2005-ongoing). 

Remarkably, none of these past studies have addressed what it actually costs to ensure that all children have free and equal access to a “suitable” public education as required under the Connecticut constitution. Instead of examining what it would cost to obtain the quality of education we need every school to be offering, some watered-down version of past expenditures routinely has been used to propose minor tweaking of the Education Cost Sharing (ECS) formula.  But when it comes to school funding, “costs” are almost never the same as “expenditures.”  (In simplest of terms, costs are what should be spent to educate students well, and expenditures are the available resources used in trying to accomplish that.)

Will the new ECS task force be any different?  Let’s hope so. This time we have a governor intent on getting things done and moving the state forward. Surely there could be no better catalyst for systemic school finance reform than a former mayor whose local taxpayers and public schools have felt considerable pain under an existing state aid system that has contributed only between 7.5 to 8.5 percent of Stamford School District expenditures this past decade.  In fact, in current dollars, the City of Stamford and its schools (along with 45 other communities) receive less ECS per pupil funding now than they did under the pre-Horton $250 per pupil flat grant. 

While Stamford is by most standards a wealthy community, its public school families are not.  Of the district’s 15,000 students, some 45 percent are poor and 38 percent live in homes where English is not the primary language.  Thus we trust that Gov. Dannel Malloy’s roots in Stamford will help guide his school finance reform efforts — and also help to silence any “fiscally neutral” calls for no increase in state spending for education but rather propose a “Robin Hood” redistribution of the state’s existing “education pie,” effectively denying even the tiny slivers of state aid to children who live within high-wealth communities while still sending far too little relief to the big urban and other highly distressed districts.
Another factor that bodes well for this new task force to generate enlightened policy recommendations is the current legal backdrop within which it will be operating.  In CCJEF v. Rell (March 2010), the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that school children have a constitutional right to a quality education and that the state must ensure (and is fiscally responsible for) same.  The Court declared that education standards are dynamic and dependent on “demands of an evolving world,” and described a “suitable” (adequate) education as one that prepares school children to …

• “participate fully in democratic institutions such as jury service and voting”
• “progress to institutions of higher education” (presumably without the high remediation rates our state colleges and universities are currently having to contend with)
• “attain productive employment” (as in meeting employers’ needs for at least entry-level workplace skills while earning a living wage)
• otherwise “contribute to the state’s economy” 

That stunning Supreme Court ruling arose from CCJEF’s appeal of a lower-court finding in favor of the state, which had argued that the constitution’s education clause confers on the state no duty whatsoever to ensure educational substance or quality and that therefore CCJEF’s adequacy claims should be dismissed.  In finding for the plaintiffs, the Supreme Court remanded the coalition’s adequacy and equity claims back to Hartford Superior Court for trial on the merits.  In other words, next up for CCJEF is to prove that the state has failed to meet any reasonable standard of adequacy and equity.  The case is scheduled for trial in January 2014, assuming no negotiated settlement is reached in the interim.

What will it take for this new task force to make a meaningful contribution to school finance reform?  It all begins with determining the real cost of providing all children a meaningful opportunity to meet the state’s content standards and performance goals.  In other words, it starts with an adequacy cost study.  (More about adequacy cost study methods in a future column.)  Either the state needs to adopt and update the 2005 study conducted by Augenblick, Palaich & Associates (a nationally prominent Denver-based school finance consulting firm) that was commissioned by CCJEF, or it needs to commission a new study that can meet similarly high professional research standards and incorporate all the unfunded and underfunded state and federal education mandates that have impacted school districts since the APA study.

With the courts now well primed to weigh in on whether the state’s funding scheme meets constitutional standards for ensuring equal educational opportunity for children — regardless of where they live, what language they speak, their race, learning needs, or family income — there is every reason to expect peak performance from this task force, smart guidance from Malloy (a successful trial lawyer in his own right), and responsible actions from the 2012 and 2013 legislatures. Certainly CCJEF’s ever-growing membership will be pressing their legislative delegations and local community leaders to become better informed about school finance issues.  And we need parents, educators, the faith and non-profit communities, and other civic organizations to take a more active role in speaking up on behalf of the urgency of adequately and equitably funding their local public schools, and most especially the Priority School Districts where fiscal distresses are causing near-insurmountable obstacles to teaching and learning despite heroic efforts by staff.  Connecticut cannot continue to lose the generations of school children represented by the policy failures of the previous nine task forces.

NEXT WEEK:  Defining education adequacy

Dr. Dianne Kaplan deVries is an education consultant who also serves as Project Director for the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding, plaintiffs in the CCJEF v. Rell educational adequacy and equity lawsuit. Opinions expressed here, however, are solely hers and not necessarily those of CCJEF.

DISCLAIMER: The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com.