Over the past few weeks there has been a lot of discussion in the News Junkie about Connecticut’s Education Cost Sharing (ECS) formula, which is the primary driver of state education funds to towns. A state-level task force is meeting to discuss ECS’ shortcomings and come up with initial recommendations for how to fix it by January.
The question is, does this task force have the courage and foresight to provide a meaningful fix to our state’s school funding woes? Or will it perpetuate Connecticut’s long tradition of defining the problem and doing nothing to fix it – or worse, will they propose tweaking the formula just enough to say something has changed and then move on?
ECS is the shining example of an outdated, convoluted, and unfair school funding system. In fact, it’s been tweaked so many times since its creation that we can’t even really say we’re using a formula right now. Not only that, ECS does not account for the thousands of students who attend charter, magnet, and technical schools – all public schools that so many want to discount or forget. As you can imagine, the result is: no accountability for how our state spends the billions of dollars it allocates towards public education, and no mechanism for making sure kids get the funding they need.
Consider this: there are at least 10 different ways that a child’s education could be funded. Each method would allocate that same child a vastly different sum, even though she is the exact same student, and her learning needs have not changed. This funding difference could be in the thousands. For example, the same student would receive close to $16,000 if she lived in Hartford, but only $12,000 in Bridgeport, $10,000 in Ansonia, and only $9,400 in a public charter school. Something is wrong with this picture.
So how do we fix the problem? Many have been arguing that the solution is more money – that if we infuse plenty more in the system, we’ll lift all boats. But Connecticut already spends more per pupil than forty-four states in the nation, and all we have to show for it is the country’s largest achievement gap. The problem isn’t the absolute dollars spent, but how we spend them. The distribution of state education dollars is so flawed that even if we did have the $2 billion a year many have been calling for, the problem of inequitable and inconsistent funding would still persist for thousands of Connecticut students. This isn’t merely about spending more. It’s about spending better.
To be sure, there are districts and schools that need more money. But that’s exactly the point. We have systematically underfunded some districts by the millions for decades because our funding formula is so broken. Adding more money into the system without thinking first about where and how to distribute it is the wrong way to go.
Connecticut’s students can’t afford to wait any longer, and certainly they can’t wait until we find $2 billion more a year. It’s unrealistic and irresponsible. We have heard too many stories of leaky classroom roofs, teachers reaching into their own pockets for basic supplies, and textbooks printed out on copy paper to wait for that day. If we want outcomes to change for our students most in need (particularly as we consider the disheartening results from last week’s National Assessment of Educational Progress report), we must take this opportunity to build out a solid and fair funding system as the foundation of our school system. And that means starting fresh with a system that is focused on meeting the needs of students, not districts or schools.
At a recent meeting of the ECS task force, Senator Toni Harp from New Haven asked those who were calling for more money what we could do if there were no new money. The response? Deafening silence and uneasy shrugs. But the fact is, there is an answer – it’s just not so comfortable for the folks who want to continue to prioritize districts over students. We can take immediate action to fulfill our obligation to the kids who have suffered under this absurd system. A commonsense, student-based approach that funds all students fairly at their schools, no matter what public school they attend, will go tremendously far to remedy the inequities students have endured for so long.
The ECS task force now has a huge opportunity to make a real difference. I very much hope the task force embraces this chance to make good on our promise to the children of Connecticut and embark on the real reforms our students so desperately need.
Patrick Riccards is the CEO of ConnCAN, a statewide education reform advocacy organization.