Four highly distressed school districts—Bridgeport, New London, Norwich, and Windham—lashed out about how inadequate state aid for education is harming schoolchildren at last Tuesday evening’s ECS Task Force meeting in Waterford. Their comments during the public portion of the meeting served as powerful validation of the formal testimony offered earlier in the meeting by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT CT), Connecticut Association of Boards of Education (CABE), Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents (CAPSS), and Connecticut Education Association (CEA).

The Waterford meeting of the ECS Task Force followed on the heels of similarly compelling formal testimony offered the prior week in New Haven by the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities (CCM), the Center for Education Policy at UConn’s NEAG School of Education, and the Connecticut Council for Education Reform. The highlight of that meeting’s public input portion was a symbolic “too small” pie presentation and moving testimony by parents from New Britain Public Schools. Strong remarks by others focused on the state’s decades-long record of inadequate and inequitable funding in Bridgeport and in the many other distressed member districts of the Connecticut Association of Urban Superintendents (CAUS) and Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding (CCJEF).

Testimony from the few statewide organizations and outside speakers invited by the ECS Task Force to make formal presentations is being publicly posted, albeit at a snail’s pace, on the website of the General Assembly Education Committee Lest the equally important but informal three-minute remarks by key stakeholders get inadvertently overlooked by legislators and other policymakers or by the public at large, I here highlight some of the urgent cries for fixing and fully funding the ECS that were aired during the public comment portion of the Waterford meeting.

BRIDGEPORT:  Robert Trefry, president of the state-appointed Bridgeport Board of Education, pointed out that Bridgeport students are like the proverbial canary in a coal mine, in that their performance in school portends what the city will be like in the future. He cited district enrollment statistics of 98.6 percent free/reduced-price meals (poverty), 92 percent minority students, only 67 percent of entering kindergartners having attended center-based preschool programs, and a high school graduation rate of about 65 percent. In addition to the huge funding disparities between Hartford, New Haven, and Bridgeport, Trefry noted that his research shows that were Bridgeport students to attend any other Connecticut public school district, that other district, on average, would spend $10 million more per year than does Bridgeport. He also pointed to CCJEF’s adequacy cost study research, which in today’s dollars means his district is being underfunded by some $132 million per year. (See table later in this column.) 

Subsequently, Trefry’s comments were echoed in the sentiments of Bridgeport parent Susy Reyes, who recounted her painful decision to send one of her four children to Massachusetts to ensure that he receives “a decent education.” That shouldn’t have been necessary, she argued, in that every child should be able to get an education in Bridgeport or anywhere in Connecticut that enables him or her to graduate high school being academically and socially prepared for the future. 

NEW LONDON:  Superintendent Nicholas Fischer questioned what an “adequate education” or a “free and appropriate education” means when here in Connecticut we do not even require that students be functionally literate to obtain a high school diploma. In his view, adequacy should mean that every child is literate in math and reading and leaves school with ample choices for the future, whether it be college, the work world, or the military. He recommended that defining adequacy entail specifying what every child is entitled to be exposed to within and across all the disciplines and what skills students are required to meet given those learning opportunities. Once that process of specifying inputs and outcomes has been completed, only then should the calculating of those costs be addressed — costs that need to be accurately reflected in the state aid formula.

Citing examples, like personnel benefits, which are not aptly captured by the ECS, Fisher noted that serious attention needs to be paid to reexamining each community’s ability to contribute to local school costs. With per person average income in New London as low as $18,000, the school district now offers breakfast, lunch, and dinner to all its students. When the dinner program announcement first went out, 122 high school students signed up within the first three days — one good indicator of just how financially distressed the families of students are and of the inability of New London taxpayers to shoulder more of what is legitimately the state’s school funding responsibility.

NORWICH:  Testifying on behalf of the Norwich Public Schools was 35-year veteran teacher, principal, and now curriculum and instruction director Joe Stefon. The district is currently in its fourth year of flat funding from both state and local governments, with this year’s budget representing a shortfall of some $12 million necessary just to maintain programs and services. The school year thus began with eleven fewer classrooms than are minimally needed, so that class sizes are now in the 25-30 student range. Nearly all non-mandated programs and services have been eliminated, including world languages, after-school sports, library assistants, instrumental music, school resource officers, the nurse supervisor, and lots more.

In addition to the PK-8 district’s 3900 students and small alternative high school, another 1550 students are tuitioned out to the town’s designated high school, the Norwich Free Academy, or to other magnet and regional high school options — tuition costs that the district has no ability to contain. Some 70 percent of Norwich PK-8 students qualify for free/reduced-price meals, and 30 languages are spoken by students. Much of the dramatic change in student demographics over the past decade has been due to the proximity of the casinos and the availability in Norwich of low-cost rental housing. These student demographic changes have brought monumental educational challenges that the ECS formula and state categorical grants have not helped the district adequately meet. Aside from a middle school building project about to be completed, many of the district’s schools are old and ill-equipped, requiring facility and technology updates — a long-term capital investment that Norwich’s poor residents and declining tax base simply cannot afford to undertake in the foreseeable future.

WINDHAM:  Erika Haynes, a town council member and mother of four, launched the evening’s public input with a rousing accusation: The ECS is a root cause for where the Windham Public Schools now finds itself (the State Board of Education has appointed a Special Master to oversee district operations), and, she asserted, it is an unfair and economically discriminatory formula.

Board of Education member Murphy Sewall cautioned that structural aspects of the formula, as with any model, need to be carefully reexamined, but that an equally critical issue in the workings of the formula has to do with the data that goes into it. Noting how bizarre the Rhode Island formula functioned when Connecticut data were plugged into it, Sewall pointed out that no formula can meet face validity requirements if the data being used are disconnected reality. He urged the Task Force to study the CCJEF education adequacy cost study’s estimates and at a minimum, to use those findings to test the reasonableness of any proposed future formula modifications. Citing Windham’s lowest, or near lowest, per capita grand list in the state and the fact that 40 percent of all property is tax-exempt, Sewall described the town’s inability to adequately meet the resource needs of the district’s 3280 students, 75.5 percent of whom are eligible for free/reduced-price meals and 25 percent are English-language learners (many not even fluent in their heritage language). The legislature simply must add more money to the formula, he concluded.

Following Sewall was Christopher Brechlin, who researches poverty and its measures. He pointed out that only 39 percent of Windham residents earn a living wage, and recommended that the Task Force utilize the online Living Wage Calculator or some combination of self-sufficiency indicatorsas measures of town wealth, suggesting that such measures would be twice as powerful as the current ones being used in the formula and better able to capture the ability of communities to support their local schools.

Board of Education candidate Douglas Lary was the final Windham speaker. Building on Sewall’s concerns with data quality, Lary noted that Windham’s multifamily homes are now selling for 51 percent of their assessed value, thereby resulting in an inflated grand list. Such huge differences in assessed versus market value of property, he said, are not being accurately reflected in the state’s current approach to measuring ECS town wealth.

WATERFORD:  By no stretch of the imagination is Waterford a distressed town or school district, but the comments made by Waterford Board of Education Chair Donald Blevins subsequent to his formal presentation as CABE President are important for readers to learn about. Blevins noted that Waterford’s small ECS allocation (the state’s contribution to the district’s operating budget is $1.45 million, just 7.1 percent of the district’s expenditures, with ECS at $436 per pupil) is based on a past history of wealth that no longer reflects reality. While Millstone Nuclear Power Plant used to contribute as much as 80 percent of the town’s tax revenues, now in the age of deregulation and other energy policy changes, that share has dropped to around 40 percent, which means a much greater tax burden is falling on homeowners, just as it does in most every other Connecticut community.

AFT CT President Sharon Palmer, a Waterford resident, former long-term teacher there, and moderator of the Representative Town Meeting, chimed in to explain how if 60 to 70 students across several grades were suddenly to leave Waterford to attend a charter school in New London or elsewhere, there most probably would be no identifiable savings within the Waterford schools, yet the district would stand to lose as much as $35,000 annually from their small ECS grant.

Andrea Stillman, ECS Task Force Co-Chair and a Waterford resident who serves as State Senator for District 20 and Senate Chair of the General Assembly’s Education Committee, reinforced Palmer’s viewpoint. Reiterating comments she herself has made at previous Task Force meetings, Stillman reinforced the importance of devising ECS improvements that are fair to all communities, whether they are distressed districts like Bridgeport, New London, Norwich, or Windham, or wealthier ones like Waterford. In this vein, she also reassured the audience that Rhode Island’s money-follows-the-child funding formula is in many ways inappropriate for Connecticut, a viewpoint that Task Force Co-Chair and OPM Secretary Ben Barnes appeared to share in his remarks. 

Stay tuned for more details of the excruciating fiscal struggles of Bridgeport, New Britain, and Norwich following the December 9 appearance of all three superintendents at a Central Connecticut State University forum on school funding equity. I have the honor of being the keynoter for that event. (For more information, contact llongo88 at gmail.com.)

Two final pieces of information worth conveying here. Katherine Wilson, a West Hartford resident and school finance specialist for the statewide League of Women Voters of Connecticut, submitted interesting testimony during the waning minutes of the Waterford meeting. In addition to generally supporting the school finance reform concepts presented by the AFT CT, CABE, CAPSS, and the CEA formal presentations, the LWV recommendations call for state aid to cities and towns to be free to rise or fall each year by whatever is required in faithfully executing the ECS formula. No caps, no stoploss or hold harmless provisions, no special dispensations via legislative fiat — just strict adherence to the student enrollment- and needs-driven formula, with the foundation level being adjusted in each biennial budget.

And finally, a question that brought immediate silence and a collective intake of breath from the audience was posed by New Haven Senator Toni Harp, who also co-chairs the General Assembly’s Appropriations Committee. What would you recommend we do if there’s indeed no additional money for education? And so, readers, what would YOU recommend?

An Example of the Broken ECS Formula
Several followers of this column have asked that I elaborate on specific areas of ECS dysfunction and, where appropriate, include lists of districts most impacted by those formula flaws. I will attempt to oblige their request by ending my column most Mondays with just such an example, beginning with a list that relates to last week’s column, in which I summarized the Augenblick, Palaich and Associates education adequacy cost study commissioned by CCJEF in 2005.

Based on findings from that education adequacy cost study’s Professional Judgment (PJ) method, below are the 15 districts whose operating budget expenditures in 2009-10 were least adequate for the students they serve, assuming the aim was to ensure about 95 percent of their students adequate opportunity to meet state goal levels in reading and math on the CMT and CAPT assessments:

Thus, shown above in rank order are the 15 districts in which student learning was least adequately funded, given the student population each serves. Their 128,557 students amount to 1 out of every 11 children who attend traditional school districts.  In applying this back-of-the-envelope updating method for the adequacy cost study, a total of 113 districts across the state were found to be underfunded, impacting some 483,000 students or 6 in every 7 children attending traditional public schools, as was reported in last week’s column.

Nevertheless, the $665 million funding shortfall shown above for these 15 districts is a conservative estimate, inasmuch as none of the unfunded and underfunded state and federal mandates that have impacted districts since early 2005 are accounted for in these figures, nor are district costs pertaining to magnet schools or other choice programs included.

Why is this shortfall attributed to the ECS rather than blamed more generally on the state’s underfunding of its entire school finance system? The answer is clear: The ECS is the state’s primary mechanism for meeting its constitutional obligation to provide adequate funding for every Connecticut schoolchild and to equalize the local funding capacity of school districts/towns — and it fails on both counts. As every property owner in these 15 communities will assure you, the adequacy shortfall is certainly not a result of requiring a local minimal budget requirement (MBR) that is too little. Property taxes in most of these and other communities throughout the state have already reached unsustainable levels, largely as a result of the heavy school funding burdens that have been increasingly foisted upon them by the state’s unwillingness to assume its fair share. 

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.