The challenge before the ECS Task Force is nothing less than how best to fund the future of today’s students and tomorrow’s workforce, the future of the state of Connecticut as a viable and growing economy steeped in traditions of social justice, and the future of our public schools along with the right to once again proudly proclaim our schools to be among the finest in the nation.

Defying the age-old school tradition of an F signifying really bad performance, I’d like to continue in my last column’s alliterative vein to suggest three constructive, forward-looking Fs that the ECS Task Force might want to mull over as it begins work on its January 2012 interim report to the legislature.

1. ‘Fess up about the state’s primary role in having nearly decimated most urban school districts and a few smaller, more rural ones — and for simultaneously also having lowered school quality statewide as a result of the persistent state underfunding of PK-12 education.  Do please emphasize that all this evolved over the past 20-some years, has been exacerbated by the current economic downturn, and has now brought many school districts to the brink of disaster by four years (soon to be five?) of “level funding” from the state (and by many local communities as well).  Task force members have heard all this, both during the public hearings in New Haven and Waterford, and from numerous organizations that have been invited to make brief presentations to the committee. 

While it’s never easy to get state government to ‘fess up to anything, particularly something as seemingly open-ended and fiscally consequential as having failed to adequately and equitably fund its public schools, Governor Malloy and about every other Connecticut politician and community leader have publically admitted that the current system is “broken.”  (Guess one should ask, then, why it is that the state continues to fight with schoolchildren in the courts!)  A loud and clear upfront acknowledgement of the education funding system’s serious flaws needs to be sketched in the ECS Task Force report, even though not all the flaws have yet been presented, researched, or deliberated.

The Task Force report should acknowledge that decades of ECS underfunding have placed an enormous burden on local communities and severely limited their ability to meet other important service needs, while the harm to education quality has been incalculable.  Given this history of this state’s under-investment in its public schools, are we really surprised about Connecticut’s bottom ranking among the New England states (let alone outrage that Texas and Alabama have surpassed us!) on the newly released 4th and 8th grade reading and math results of the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)? 

The Connecticut Conference of Municipalities earlier testified to the ECS Task Force that the ECS grant for 2011-12, at just under $1.9 billion (flat since 2008-09), is almost $800 million short of what the state has promised.  Even the promised $2.7 billion fails to meet education adequacy and equity levels as estimated in CCJEF’s 2005 education cost study.

One immediate action that the ECS Task Force could recommend would be a plan to help the most severely impacted districts toward recovery.  Turnaround is going to require significant fiscal resources—certainly considerably in excess of any mere re-slicing of the currently too-small education pie.  Re-dividing the ECS at its current funding level won’t work:  It’s unacceptable politically and presumably also constitutionally.  Besides, shifting the small amount of ECS funding currently allocated high-wealth communities to the lowest-wealth/lowest-performing school districts may sound like a no-cost solution, but those dollars are too little to produce the kind of dramatic school improvements that are desperately needed.  And here’s another quandary for the Task Force:  Where’s the relief and catch-up funding to help repair the extraordinary fiscal damage that some of the state’s most highly challenged districts and others faced during the 12 years that ECS allocations were capped? 

Many of the biggest ECS cap-loss districts have not been able to crawl out of the chasm it carved, especially inasmuch as for property-poor communities the cap was but an extreme period of punishment sandwiched between their years of pre- and post-cap grossly inadequate and inequitable state aid.  As the Task Force ponders which districts are most in need of policy, and presumably also fiscal, attention — and the number of districts in this special at-risk/high-need category has been hypothesized to be somewhere between 15 and 25 —surely the damage wrought by the ECS cap should be acknowledged and somehow set right.
2. Fix up those existing schools that are in serious need of updating. In addition to the urgency of providing catch-up/turnaround operations funding for the state’s most fiscally distressed school districts, might the Task Force place a premium on long overdue new construction or renovate-as-new facilities projects in communities that are way behind the curve when it comes to modern, safe, healthy school buildings designed for 21st century teaching and learning? The State Department of Education’s latest facility report (1999) shows that of the 1,036 public school buildings maintained by cities and towns, nearly half were built before 1950, and one-fourth of all schools haven’t been renovated since 1980. Elementary schools comprise about 70 percent of school facilities that are oldest, based on year of construction and last renovation.  Not surprisingly, the average age of facilities since the last major renovation increases as one moves down the District Reference Groups A- to-I, reflecting the decreasing wealth levels of school districts and the inability and/or lack of political will of their communities to shoulder the required local bonding share of facility improvements. 

Underscoring the importance of modern facilities to both the learning process and neighborhood revitalization is an extraordinary new study independently conducted by two Yale University economists, Christopher Neilson and Seth Zimmerman.  They examined the effects of New Haven’s extensive school construction project on Connecticut Mastery Test (CMT) reading and math scores for elementary and middle school students, home prices in the surrounding neighborhoods, associated increases in property tax revenues, and changes in public school enrollment patterns

“This [Neilson-Zimmerman] study shows that our investment has brought tangible and measurable results, including improved test scores, higher tax revenues, and stronger neighborhoods,” commented New Haven Mayor John DeStefano, Jr.  “School buildings are only part of the answer to improving education, but they play a vital role, as this study confirms.” 

Although important positive effects of school construction were identified by the New Haven study, not definitively identified is what it is about school construction that helps students, though school principals reported that the positive effects represent a mix between specific physical changes that enabled better teaching or student management and construction-induced improvements in student, teacher, and parent motivation.

Another recent study, conducted by CCSU economist Paramita Dhar and summarized in the fall 2011 issue of The Connecticut Economy, examined the effect of school quality,  as measured by CMT 8th grade math scores, on property values.  Her findings indicate that a one-standard deviation increase in test scores would raise the value of a Connecticut home worth $250,000 by some $16,250.

Whether these two studies contributed to Commissioner Stefan Pryor’s wise call at the November meeting of the State Board of Education to redirect some $25 million in previously appropriated state construction and infrastructure spending to repair aging buildings, upgrade technology, and spark turnaround efforts in low-performing districts is unclear, but the Yale authors did forward him a copy of their paper upon his arrival in Hartford.  Unfortunately, $25 million is a woefully small budget for tackling even the most basic of infrastructure improvements that the Department’s 2009 facility survey reveals are needed within lower-wealth, lower-performing school districts, let alone also covering the cost of overhauling school technology and restructuring teaching and learning within those schools.

As ECS Task Force work continues throughout much of 2012 and increasing policy attention is focused on school reform, jobs, and community revitalization, hopefully increasing attention will also be given to the important nexus between school facilities and the strong schools/strong communities goals that all of us here in Connecticut share.

3. Fund our future! Funding our future simply must be a top budget priority for the Malloy Administration and legislators, regardless how slowly the state’s economic recovery is realized.  We cannot fumble through another decade of education decay awaiting federal aid while Washington burns.  Nor can today’s students wait for “better times” that for tens of thousands of them will come too late to provide them learning opportunities that adequately prepare them for successful adult lives, productive careers, and active citizenship.

Improved student outcomes, the closing of the achievement gap, and school turnaround — just like economic development, job creation, and the seeding of new industries within the state — require a significant upfront investment.  Without that increased investment in education, all our longer-term economic and social goals are surely destined to falter. 

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