Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s Education Cost Sharing Task Force narrowed its focus Friday and debated whether fully funding the formula should be one of its recommendations.
“Can it ever be fully funded given the constraints on spending that we have?” Sen. Toni Harp, D-New Haven, wondered. “Are there ways to release some of those constraints?”
Just saying “fully fund” doesn’t get us anywhere, she said.
Harp, who is chairwoman of the legislature’s Appropriations Committee, said fully funding the formula could cause problems with Connecticut’s constitutional spending cap.
“It’s difficult to imagine supporting an open-ended commitment to state resources that we don’t understand entirely,” Office of Policy and Management Secretary Ben Barnes said.
He said the notion that there’s a formula that is right and will satisfy the needs of all the students in all of the towns is a “mistaken notion.” He said formulas are a way to distribute funding but how much money is distributed is ultimately a political calculation made by the General Assembly and Malloy.
“Full funding is kind of like a unicorn in some respects,” Barnes said. “But maybe the amount of money we have now is probably not enough and we want to put more in is probably true.”
Len Miller, a member of the task force and an accountant from Fairfield County, said he understands these are difficult times to be talking about fully funding something, but “how can we afford not to?” He said it’s not an expense, but an investment.
“How can we afford not to fund education given the challenges that this state has?” Miller said. “We can say we will make every effort to fund this as much as possible.”
But former Education Commissioner Ted Sergi said he doesn’t think fully funding it is necessarily what people want. He said what he gathered from the public hearings the task force had that people wanted predictability.
“I think putting the words fully funded into this report is a mistake,” Sergi said. “We know the state adopts this formula then doesn’t fund it. Each year the legislature and the governor have to adopt a new mechanism to screw it down.”
The task force finally settled on wording for its draft report that supports efforts to increase funding and making the grant program more predictable on a year-to-year basis.
Last month, Malloy signaled that he’s looking to give fewer than 30 of the lowest performing school districts in the state more money. The additional money will come from some of the higher achieving school districts, a notion that has some towns concerned.
Malloy expressed his desire to give more money to the lower performing urban school districts last month at the Council of Small Towns’ annual meeting.
Bart Russell, executive director of C.O.S.T., has said that the Education Cost Sharing formula accounts for about 60 to 70 percent of the budgets of many small towns. He said smaller suburban and rural towns represented by his organization have always felt the current formula favors more urban communities.
However, the board of directors of C.O.S.T. was told by a state official years ago that the only way suburban and rural towns would do better is if more money is put into the formula and “everybody’s boat rises.”
“We never really pursued efforts to try and modify the formula because he said any efforts you try to pursue there will be winners and losers,” Russell said. “Politically that will be very difficult to facilitate.”
But that’s just what the Education Cost Sharing Task Force has been asked to do is make recommendations regarding the formula.
The task force also struggled Friday with questions about if magnet and charter schools should be included as part of the formula and if conditional or competitive funding should be included.