A mini pie in the face of the state’s persistent underfunding of the public schools brought smiles to ECS Task Force members at last Tuesday’s meeting in New Haven.  With great aplomb, New Britain parent Esther Santana presented Task Force members with a four-inch apple pie, challenging them to increase the size of the ECS pie lest they will have “wasted the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of Connecticut’s children.”

John Ryan photo
She cautioned the Task Force that “if you complete your work and don’t call for a new formula based on what it actually costs to educate children to the level expected by the state, you doom another generation of children to an inadequate education.”  After relating how the New Britain education budget has been cut year after year while the student population has grown poorer and the state’s share of the operating budget has declined, Santana turned to the audience and asked, “What’s the problem?”  “The pie’s too small!” returned a chorus of voices.

Santana’s tongue-in-cheek pieing was followed by testimony from another New Britain parent.  Merrill Gay poignantly described how a paucity of resources has increasingly ravaged the quality of education in that district over the 14 years that his children have been students there. His family’s tale tracked the district’s painful downhill slide as it struggled to fund preschool and full-day kindergarten programs, reasonable class sizes, and the full array of high-quality curricular and co-curricular offerings that any comprehensive high school ought to be able to provide.  An ethnically and economically diverse city the size of New Britain, he argued, ought to have sufficient resources for providing its school children equal educational opportunity on a par with neighboring suburban districts, if the city is to retain its local school enrollments and middle class residents.

The next opportunity for public input will be this Tuesday, October 25, when the ECS Task Force meets at Clark Lane Middle School in Waterford at 5 p.m.  No additional public input opportunities have been announced. 

So, readers, one more call to action:  Now is the time to make your voice be heard.  Whether you live in southeastern Connecticut or the state’s northwest corner, Greater Hartford or Fairfield County, your testimony at the Waterford hearing is welcome and urgently needed.  The adequacy and equity of state education aid to your community is at stake, as is the future of this generation of Connecticut public school children and the society and economy they will soon play a major role in reshaping.

The Size of the Pie and How It’s Sliced Really Do Make a Difference!

This brings me to the continuation of last week’s column, in which I discussed some of the broken elements of the ECS formula.  I began that column with the shocking assertion that more than two-thirds of Connecticut’s school districts, or some 87 percent of PK-12 students attending traditional public schools, are inadequately funded.

Where do those figures come from, inquired one skeptical reader who then went on to cite apples-to-oranges expenditure comparisons with other states and the national average, along with largely irrelevant percentages of “failing schools” under the soon-to-be-revised provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).  Glad to have grabbed his attention.  Let me explain what those figures represent.

Costing Out Education Adequacy. 

For new readers who haven’t been following this weekly column, the definition of an adequate education was discussed on October 3. But how do we know whether we’re adequately funding our schools to ensure an adequate education as required by the state’s constitution and equal educational opportunity for all students?  Are we able to estimate how much it would reasonably cost to enable all (or nearly all) students to reach a given high level of achievement?

Adequacy cost studies provide policymakers with a rational basis on which to make funding decisions by generating the best estimates that current social science tools offer for understanding what it costs for school districts to meet the diverse learning needs of their students and the performance expectations of parents, employers, and the state.  Adequacy studies are a more reasoned approach to the design and periodic revamp of state aid formulas and certainly less susceptible to political influences than funding formulas designed primarily to reflect what the states wishes to allocate to PK-12 education (e.g., the Rhode Island formula, and to some extent, the original ECS formula as well plus all of its subsequent legislative tweaks).  Courts across the nation have relied on adequacy cost studies to help determine the sufficiency of state funding levels and compliance with state constitutional provisions pertaining to children’s fundamental right to equal opportunity.

In early 2005, the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding (CCJEF) — a broad-based coalition of municipalities, school districts, professional education associations, unions, other education advocacy organizations, and parents —commissioned an adequacy cost study to move forward the urgent issue of school finance reform in the state.  The study was conducted by the nationally prominent Denver-based education consulting firm of Augenblick, Palaich and Associates (APA).

The APA study employed two of the four most recognized adequacy cost study methods:  an analysis of Successful School Districts (SSD), and the Professional Judgment (PJ) approach.  Each costing-out method used a different standard for adequate student performance, and both methods utilized 2003-04 school district operating expenditures that excluded outlays for transportation, food service, adult education, school construction, land or capital purchases, and debt services, none of which is included in the state’s reported measure of annual Net Current Expenditures per Pupil (NCEP).

The SSD study was based on the identification of 35 districts whose CMT and CAPT reading and math assessment scores over the previous three years already met the state’s performance requirements for 2007-08 under NCLB.  That standard was 79 percent of students scoring at the proficiency level in reading and 82 percent in math.  Results of the SSP study estimated the total cost of an adequate education in Connecticut — i.e., the level of education resources that should enable all school districts to meet those modest NCLB proficiency standards —to be $5.961 billion, based on 2004 dollars.  At the time, some 93 districts were not funded at that level; those districts enrolled more than 413,000 students.  The “funding gap” between combined state, local, and federal resources being spent in those districts and the amount estimated to be necessary was $509.9 million.

The PJ process brought together 44 highly qualified educators from across the state, working in five panels to construct and resource hypothetical schools and districts with varying levels of enrollment size and student needs.  A sixth PJ panel overviewed the work of the others and provided an opportunity for representatives of statewide education associations and the State Department of Education to contribute.  PJ panelists included superintendents and other central-office senior administrators, veteran and award winning teachers, curriculum and pupil support specialists, and board of education members.  A majority of these panelists were drawn from the high-performing SSP districts.

The PJ performance standard was approximately 95 percent of all students meeting state goal level on CMT and CAPT reading, math, and writing — not just the lower “proficiency” standard of NCLB that was used in the SSP study, but the state’s own designated performance standard.  PJ panels were tasked with specifying the resources (e.g., personnel, staffing ratios, kinds and amounts of technology, support services, and all programs/practices) needed to meet that standard within each of four school/district contextual scenarios describing increasingly at-risk student populations.  No costs, in terms of approximate dollars needed or their own districts’ spending patterns, were discussed by the panelists; they focused only on the actual resources that money must purchase if students are to succeed in meeting state goals.

All resources specified by panelists were required to be linked to the existing state and federal standards summarized in a seven-page document from which they worked.  APA researchers repeatedly issued warnings that all resources had to be tied directly to state standards, that this was not an exercise for designing “dream schools” or even to include the modest extras that parents in many communities value as being essential to schooling excellence. 

In enumerating and quantifying the resources necessary for schools and districts of varying sizes and demographics, the PJ panelists essentially defined what an adequate education in CT should consist of. For example, the following basic elements are reflected in the APA cost estimates:
• Qualified classroom, support, and administrative staffing, with ongoing high-quality professional development for all
• Comprehensive, rigorous, standards-based curriculum aligned with assessments
• Curricular offerings that include world languages, visual and performing arts, and vocational training
• Appropriate students-to-staff and students-per-school ratios
• Ample and up-to-date books, materials, computers and other instructional technology
• Universal preschool in high-needs districts and full-day kindergarten for every district
• Strong extracurricular offerings, including team sports, art/music/drama/dance participation, and special-interest clubs
• Programs targeted to at-risk students for purposes of remediation, enrichment, motivation, and social interaction
• Support services (e.g., health and dental care, psychological and academic counseling mentoring, parent liaisons)
• Safe and well-maintained school facilities
• Longer school day and/or year, free summer school for those who need to catch up and those who wish to accelerate their learning

After the five panels had completed their work, APA attached cost figures to the resources the panelists had agreed upon, using statewide expenditure data provided by the State Department of Education and other available sources.  The PJ findings estimated the cost of an adequate education, whereby about 95 percent of all students should be able to reach state goal levels in reading, math, and writing, to be $7.71 billion, in 2003-04 dollars.  At the time the study was completed in early 2005, 145 of the state’s 166 public school districts were funded below the level of adequacy.  Together, they served nearly 544,000 students.  The “funding gap” between combined state, local, and federal resources being spent in those districts and the amount estimated to be necessary was $2.07 billion.

Less than a year after the APA cost study was publicly released, at an early meeting of Governor Rell’s Commission on Education Finance, the State Department of Education admitted that the state was in arrears by some $1.1 billion in keeping up with the ECS formula as it had been originally designed.  Thus in 2005 the difference between the state having fully funded and faithfully implemented the intended ECS formula and what it would cost to fully fund education adequacy amounted to around $1 billion. 

Unfortunately, the APA study does not reflect the substantial costs that unfunded and under-funded state and federal mandates have added to operating costs in all Connecticut districts since 2005.  That study also fails to account for subsequent changes in student enrollment, learning needs, and content standards, or the increased cost of personnel, books and materials, heat and electricity, etc. 

Returning to the query about what source was used to cite last week’s shocking statistics, here’s the answer: Using APA’s PJ district-by-district per pupil adequacy figures for 2003-04, I compared those figures in 2010 dollars against each district’s per pupil operating budget expenditures (NCEP) for 2009-10.  Results:  113 school districts that enroll some 483,000 students were still being funded below the adequacy level in FY10 (latest available state data).  That’s 87 percent of the students enrolled in traditional (town-based and regional) school districts not being provided an education fully commensurate with the state’s own learning goals and the necessary tools for success in the twenty-first century. 

Why did I use the PJ cost estimates rather than the lower SSD ones?  Because the “state goal” standard for student performance on the CMT and CAPT is Connecticut’s “gold” standard.  “State goal” indicates that a student has achieved the basic mastery of reading, math, and writing that is today minimally required for success in higher education and the high-wage, high-value, highly competitive jobs of the future.

Finally, let me emphasize that adequacy cost studies produce estimates that are intended to be informative, not determinative, in revamping state aid formulas and aligning equalization aid with the actual cost of educating all students and undergirding improved performance of students and schools. The APA study does not presume to determine the exact cost of each student’s education in Connecticut, but its research-based analysis is the closest we can come to that real-world number — and that certainly beats picking random numbers from the political hat. Note also that APA made no recommendation whatsoever on the share of adequacy resources that should be borne by the state, municipalities, or the federal government, or about how those revenues should be raised.

How resources are used will always be fundamental to making money matter and stretching precious dollars to their absolute maximum.  Yet to ignore the utility of costing out studies like the APA work is to bury one’s head in the sand and hope that well-meaning but ill-informed politicians get the school funding formula right and that our courts won’t look too closely when enforcing schoolchildren’s constitutional rights to an adequate and equitable education.

To readers naïve enough to believe that money doesn’t matter when it comes to delivering quality education, then you don’t understand what even the nation’s most ardent right-wing education economists have finally come to accept:  resources do indeed matter in student achievement, but the money needs to be well spent.  Couldn’t agree more!

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.

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.