More than two-thirds of Connecticut’s school districts — some 483,000 students — are inadequately funded. That’s 87 percent of the state’s PK-12 students attending traditional public schools. These students do not have access to the resources their teachers and school districts need for delivering programs and services commensurate with the 21st century. 

Before explaining the basis for these shocking estimates of underfunding, it’s important to take a look at how such a smart, well-heeled, and progressive-thinking state let itself fall into such a deep and seemingly inextricable funding hole. 

The State’s Broken Funding System

What’s wrong with how we’ve been funding education here in Connecticut? Hardly a week goes by without this question being asked me by anxious parents who want better schools, veteran educators who also want better schools, and puzzled policymakers who haven’t yet fully grasped the complexities of the state’s broken school funding system. Tired of the “failing schools” and teacher-bashing pabulum, they want concrete information and insights into root causes of the seeming deterioration of Connecticut’s public schools. This week’s column is for them.

For starters, let’s look at the Education Cost Sharing formula (ECS), the state’s primary equalization formula. The ECS accounts for about 80 percent of the state education aid provided to Connecticut’s 169 towns for the support of their local and regional school districts. Unfortunately, design and subsequent updates of the ECS have relied mostly on technical second-guessing and been driven by a lack of political will to commit a fair share of the state’s general fund dollars to necessary investments in PK-12 schoolchildren. 

ECS flaws are too numerous to detail here, but chief among my criticisms of it are these: 

• The ECS foundation level has always been arbitrarily determined and has little to do with the reality of what needs to be spent to ensure ordinary students an even ordinary education. The initial foundation level (supposedly still reflected in the formula today) was based on school districts’ expenditure data from previous years, not on any sound, rational basis for determining what it might cost to achieve a certain level of quality schooling within individual districts and across the state.  And while the initial formula called for readjusting the foundation level annually to keep pace with rising expenditures by local districts, that never happened, and no other mechanism was introduced to safeguard the formula from inflation. Thus by 2006-07, the $5,891 per pupil foundation level had $1,860 less value than the $5,711 foundation level of 1995-96. Similarly, the 2007-08 foundation level, increased to $9,687, is today worth $519 less, notwithstanding the near-zero inflation of the past two years.  Particularly in higher-needs districts that receive substantial state ECS aid, such erosion of the formula due to inflation continues to have a significant impact on the quality of schooling their limited revenues can support.

• The formula inappropriately defines student needs categories in ways contrived to substantially lower the numbers of students receiving extra weighting for poverty and English-language learning, and the weights for both category of need are far too low.  Undercounting students with extra learning needs and weighting too low the marginal costs of serving them (i.e., what it costs over and above the cost of serving any “average” child) are ploys that saves the state millions of dollars — and contributes to Connecticut’s unconscionable achievement gaps.  This was touched upon in last week’s comparison with RI’s new formula

The ECS defines poverty as students receiving federal Title I compensatory education services rather than using the number of students eligible for free or reduced-price meals. This saves the state from counting half to three-quarters of the 175,000 low-income students who receive the federally subsidized meals in traditional school districts, inasmuch as Title I dollars don’t stretch far enough within any district to cover services for all children in poverty or in all grades.  The counterargument is that it’s difficult to verify children’s eligibility under federal poverty guidelines, but RI and other states have found ways to do that, and so could our state. The formula weights poverty students at 33 percent, meaning that an additional 0.33 percent of a student is added to the district’s resident pupil count. 

English-language learners (ELL) are equally dramatically under-counted, with only those K-12 students being counted who would otherwise qualify for bilingual funding under a small state categorical grant if only their school housed 20 students with the same dominant language. About one-third of such students are thereby included in the ECS formula and weighted at 15 percent. No funding is provided for the majority students learning English who will require substantial language assistance well beyond the state’s limitation of 30 months as they progress through the grades and cope with increasingly complex subject matter. 

• The ECS formula lacks any weights whatsoever for mild and moderate-needs special education (SPED) students, thereby foisting those costs onto local districts.  While the state provides limited reimbursement outside the ECS formula for extraordinarily costly SPED students, a district must spend 4.5 times its average expenditure per student before the state’s capped SPED Excess Cost grant kicks in. SPED funding has a serious impact on the budgets of every school district in the state, with an average of 22 percent of total operating expenditures going to cover SPED needs, though it’s not uncommon for districts to spend as much as 25 to 30 percent and incur six-figure costs for numerous severely handicapped children requiring out-of-district placement.  With little to no meaningful state aid for SPED, the quality of regular program offerings delivered to the majority of enrolled students is diminished.

• The distribution of ECS funds is flawed and inequitable. The formula’s determination of how much money goes to each town is based on outdated and erroneous income figures, along with inaccurate population counts, unverifiable manipulations of local property values (grand lists), and other such problems with data quality that distort local need and render the ECS measure of wealth invalid. I’ll skip this discussion, because it’s been well covered in a February 2011 publication of Connecticut Voices for Children that is already in the hands of ECS Task Force members.

• The minimum budget requirement for local municipalities (the dreaded MBR) is riddled with problems too complex to summarize here. The MBR acts as a necessary enabler for the ECS, representing the “cost sharing” nature of the formula and arguably enabling the state to contribute far less than it should.  Yet without such a minimum requirement, mid- and lower-wealth communities would be less likely, and find it politically even more difficult, to devote as much of their local property tax revenues to education as the MBR now requires them to do. Even so, the MBR is way out of step with dynamic conditions that are wreaking havoc with municipal budgets in nearly every community. Declining enrollments and an increase in shared (town-school) services make reform of the MBR an especially hot point of contention, particularly inasmuch as fixed costs of school district operations are not as sensitive to changes in enrollments as municipalities would like, and shared services don’t always provide the level of responsiveness and flexibility that school districts depend upon. Unless the state’s contribution were to significantly increase above its current level (which the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities estimates to be 40.9 percent vs. local communities’ share of 53.5 percent for 2011-12), any lessening of the MBR will likely place additional budgetary strain on the local schools. 

Lest we forget, ECS allocations were capped for a dozen years (1996 through 2007), resulting in a loss of some $1.2 billion in state aid for 92 communities while 55 percent of that capped amount was reallocated to communities that wouldn’t have received those funds under the original formula.  Net savings to the state for the 12 years of political tomfoolery:  a mere $528 million. Net cost to school quality:  incalculable, but huge, and some districts have never recovered.  Examples:  Bridgeport’s net loss was over $108 million, followed by $82 million in New Britain, $67 million in East Hartford, $65 million in Waterbury, $54 million in Stratford, $45 million in Hamden, Meriden, and West Hartford, and $33 million in New Haven. The list goes on and on, with cap losses in smaller communities being equally devastating to their schools’ ability to deliver quality programs and services. 

With the latest ECS “reform” in 2007, a new cap was instigated to phase in an additional $800 million. The poor phase-in craftsmanship, combined with a “timeout” due to the economy, currently has implementation of the phase-in stuck at an average 66 percent of the fully funded amount, though this varies wildly from town to town (from 30 percent to 159 percent of the fully funded amount, according to the Connecticut Voices report previously cited).
 
The ECS formula has existed since 1989-90 — but it was not implemented as designed, never once has been fully funded, and has been repeatedly tinkered with by the legislature and past two governors since its inception. What the current ECS Task Force, Governor Malloy, and the 2012 and 2013 legislative sessions will propose by way of fixing the formula are big unknowns. My column next week will urge them to utilize the 2005 education adequacy cost study conducted by Augenblick, Palaich and Associates (Denver), with updates, as a guidepost for the ECS revamp.

ECS Task Force Public Input

Come to New Haven on Tuesday, October 18, and let the ECS Task Force hear your views about the ECS and unmet funding needs in your community. Beginning at 5 pm, the Task Force will hear presentations by the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, UConn’s Neag School of Education, and the Connecticut Business & Industry Association, followed by public comment and a question and answer period. The event will take place at Hill Regional Career High School, 140 Legion Avenue, New Haven.  Hope to see you there!

Next week:  The Cost of an Adequate Education, Part 2

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 education adequacy and equity lawsuit. Opinions expressed here, however, are solely hers and not necessarily those of CCJEF or CTNewsJunkie.com.