The Year of Education has been ushered in with a lion-like roar. Both teachers and low-performing school districts are the objects of radical policy changes proposed by Governor Dannel P. Malloy in his massive 163-page bill.

Among the important non-fiscal provisions that should garner nearly unanimous support from both sides of the aisle and all education sectors are those that would create a unified set of reporting requirements and quality ratings within a coordinated system of early childhood education, additional preschool seats in high-needs districts, scholarships for promising new teachers, and tightened requirements for ensuring quality professional development for all certified staff.

Other provisions, such as those that would dramatically alter teacher tenure, are quite controversial. Proposed tenure changes, in particular, reflect a jarring policy shift for teachers and their unions.

The bill would require the state to invest an additional $128 million in education reforms.  This includes an additional $50 million for the ECS, with $40 million of it earmarked for the 30 lowest-performing school districts if they agree to meet certain “conditions”; $4.5 million for competitive categorical grants; $11.1 million for charter schools, to be augmented by $6.5 million paid by municipalities as tuition; and $12 million for early childhood education, of which $4 million would be for 500 new preschool slots by this September.

Education funding changes contained in SB 24 do not address adequacy and equity in education, even in the face of a looming court battle as the CCJEF v. Rell school finance case moves toward trial. 

Leaping months ahead of recommendations to be issued by his own ECS Task Force and bypassing at least two governmental task forces addressing the achievement gap, Governor Malloy has unilaterally forged ahead and proposed legislation to “fix” the Education Cost Sharing (ECS) formula, pass some of the state’s funding of charter schools off onto municipalities, and turn around “failing” school districts and schools, all while vesting unprecedented powers in the Commissioner of Education and failing to address the chronic state underfunding of schools.

So what’s not to love about the proposed school finance-related reforms?  First off, they’ve originated as top-down fiat rather than stemming from any semblance of open deliberative processes with input from recognized experts in school finance. 

Other concerns include these:

• There is no research-based rationale for the ECS formula components.  SB 24 calls for a new foundation of $12,000 (up from $9,687); student need weights to remain at .33 for poverty and .15 for English language learners, though improved methods that result in more students being counted for these two need categories are proposed; and the Department of Economic and Community Development’s median household income data would be used for calculating town wealth, replacing that of the Census Bureau’s. 

These all appear to be small steps headed in the right direction.  Yet both the ECS formula as a whole and the proposed tweaks reflect arbitrary decisions reached via backroom politics rather than what it really costs to educate children — very much the same fatal flaw that CCJEF has been pointing out since 2004. 

Unless and until a new education adequacy cost study is commissioned, it is impossible to estimate an adequate level for the foundation and student weightings.

• The bill weakens the equalization purposes of the ECS by piggybacking onto it categorical grant-like requirements for a singled-out segment of school districts — the 30 lowest-performing districts, all situated in the state’s most fiscally struggling communities.  For those highest-need districts to receive any increase in their ECS allocations, they will have to meet certain “conditions” whereby each commits to and implements a particular school reform effort within broad categories set forth by the Department of Education.  This puts bread-and-butter entitlement funds at jeopardy for the districts that serve a majority of the state’s poor, minority, and non-English proficient children — and it cedes sole discretion over disbursement of those sorely needed funds to the Commissioner of Education.

The proposed new hoops require the kind of expansive long-term reforms that are likely to cost the 30 municipalities far more dollars than can be expected to come from any ECS increases in the foreseeable future, given the slow economic recovery of the state.  That their municipalities would be able to contribute toward such reforms is an unreasonable gamble, given bleak municipal budget realities, high mill rates, and the long history of inadequate state education aid.  Why aren’t legislators demanding a cost study to ascertain just what the fiscal ramifications of these “conditions” are for distressed municipalities and their resource-deprived school districts?

The ECS is the state’s primary aid formula designed to comply with the 1977 Supreme Court ruling in Horton v. Meskill by attempting to minimize property tax inequities while ensuring a constitutional level of equal educational opportunity.  To introduce such a radical policy deviation to that formula, as this categorical grant-like overlay would be, is especially unwise.

Rather than threaten to withhold entitlement funding for resource-starved school districts and their high-needs students, the appropriate approach would be to offer this “conditional funding” outside the ECS as a straightforward categorical grant, all of which carry specific qualifying conditions.  Categorical funding also ensures that the money would go straight to the school district rather than through municipal coffers.

• Further risking the integrity of the ECS is the SB 24 provision that would add a tuition charge to municipalities of $1,000 per pupil for every resident student who opts to enroll in a charter school.  Like the categorical grant overlay, including charge-backs in an equalization formula is technically unsound. 

Even should charter advocates be successful in winning a toehold toward shifting the total cost of state charters to municipalities and their traditional school districts, that accounting needs to take place outside the ECS formula.  (State chartered schools are outside the control of local school districts and educate only 1% of public school students.)  Tuition payments are not included in the ECS formula for interdistrict magnet schools or vocational agriculture programs, so why should state charter schools be treated any differently? 

• The bill introduces a zero aid ratio that would eliminate any ECS increases now or in the future for highest-wealth districts.  On the face of it, this provision is arguably unconstitutional, inasmuch as the state’s duty is to all children, not just to those who reside in lower-income communities. 

High-wealth school districts, like their poorer counterparts, also need to refocus on concerted improvements aimed at maximizing the learning abilities of every child, including students already achieving at advanced levels.  The zero aid ratio provision is a grave policy omen for high-wealth districts, 45 of which still today receive less ECS aid per pupil (in current dollars) than they did pre-Horton.

• Nothing in the bill rectifies the state’s gross underfunding of special education. No SPED weight was added to the ECS, and no full-funding of the SPED Excess Cost grant or a lowering of its reimbursement threshold for severe-needs students was proposed.  Rising SPED costs that limit the ability of districts to fund their regular education programs remain a major cost driver within every Connecticut school district.

To propose such a bold and ambitious plan amidst the continuing fiscal uncertainty that our state faces is both breathtaking and indicative of Governor Malloy’s understanding that education is key to economic competitiveness and the future well-being of this state and nation. But if the Administration has indeed found $128 million to invest now in education, a more meaningful and equitable investment would be to put the bulk of those monies into funding SPED, which would benefit every Connecticut school district, and/or to increase substantially the number of new preschool seats and scale up other early childhood investments within the Priority School Districts.

In sum, SB 24 does not constitute needed systemic education finance reform — and the proposed fiscal changes, together with the many under-funded or unfunded “non-fiscal” reforms contained in the bill, are likely to increase Connecticut’s nation-leading reliance on property taxes to fund PK-12 public education.

The Governor’s highly laudable intentions for accelerating school reform notwithstanding, SB 24’s fiscal reforms require far more public deliberation and expert analyses than can be had during this short legislative session.  Nor will these reforms help resolve the school finance lawsuit, as CCJEF testimony has made clear. If anything, the proposed fiscal tinkering with the ECS may strengthen plaintiffs’ claims.

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.