Over the past several weeks several prominent education and business organizations have expressed enthusiastic support for Governor Malloy’s education reform package, Senate Bill 24. Indeed, the governor has made a valiant first attempt to hold true to his commitments to school finance reform as a founder of the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding while serving as mayor of Stamford.  His efforts, coming hurriedly and amidst tough economic times, are a welcome sea change from past administrations, despite the many shortcomings of this bill.

Glowing tributes aside, SB 24 misses the mark on school finance reform.  Except for improving the way poor and limited English proficient students are to be counted in the ECS formula, SB 24’s fiscal provisions are troubling.  So, too, is the silence of education leaders about those school finance changes, given their local budget crises and long-standing outcries against unfunded and underfunded state mandates.  Their silence begs a few questions, especially those that focus on SB 24’s inadequate funding of what will be required of the state’s 30 lowest-performing districts and issues of equity for children and taxpayers.

For Struggling Districts, Reform Costs Will Outweigh ECS Increases

Are school leaders of the state’s most academically and fiscally struggling districts now so desperate for SB 24’s few additional dollars that they’re willing to overlook the new get-tough “conditions” that will henceforth be imposed on their ECS formula increases?  (The bill increases the ECS by $50 million, or 2.6 percent, an average increase of just $92 per student; $40 million of that would be directed to the 30 lowest-performing districts, resulting in per pupil increases of up to $250.)  Unless these historically underperforming districts, which serve a majority of the state’s poor, minority and limited-English students, are suddenly able to jump through whatever reform hoops may satisfy the commissioner of education, any future ECS aid increases will be in jeopardy.  Given the profound impact of poverty on student achievement and grossly inadequate resources for ameliorating that impact, rapid turnaround for these districts would be against all odds.

Do superintendents and schools boards actually believe that their municipalities will pick up the lion’s share of the tab for these new reforms?  Meaningful school reform carries a hefty price tag, far in excess of the ECS increases proposed for fiscal year 2013 or those considered likely to be forthcoming over the next couple of years.  Thus most reform efforts contained in SB 24 rely upon existing district resources being reallocated to accommodate massive change, along with the tacit assumption of additional local tax dollars.  Parents and students will want to be especially vigilant about any proposals to redirect resources within the bare-bones budgets that already plague these districts.  Stripping schools of “non-core” programming in the visual and performing arts, world languages and social studies, and dramatically cutting extracurricular offerings vital to retaining student motivation and nurturing their social skills, could be catastrophic.

Whither Equity?

Why aren’t educators, parent activists, and business leaders from high-wealth communities complaining loudly about how SB 24 reduces their ECS base aid ratio to zero, thereby depriving their students of a fair share of state aid?  All future education budget increases in these communities will be expected to come from local property taxes.  Similarly, why aren’t they protesting more loudly the proposed ECS deduction of $1,000 for every student who enrolls in a charter school?  Presumably this toehold provision is aimed at acclimating municipalities and their districts to a future “money follows the child” ECS formula revamp, wherein local communities will have to pick up the entire tab for an ever-growing number of these independently operated schools.  It’s another SB 24 provision that will add to local mill rates.

Preschool:  A Cost-Effective Way to Improve Educational Outcomes

Why does SB 24 add a mere 500 preschool slots?  That’s too slow a phase-in toward a goal of universal preschool, given that the demand for subsidized programs among struggling families easily exceeds 10,000 children, as per rough estimates provided by Connecticut Voices for Children.  The return on investment in quality preschool, as established by countless research studies across the nation, arguably makes universal preschool the most compelling reform strategy this state could embark upon.  Greater access to quality preschool has been found to be associated with lower rates of special education, higher achievement and higher graduation rates, as well as substantial longer-term personal and societal benefits and cost-savings during adulthood.  The $50 million that SB 24 adds to the ECS would go a long way toward ensuring universal quality preschool within the state’s lowest-performing districts.

Why the Silence on Special Education?

Why is there little clamor for SB 24 to include improved funding for special education and a lowering of the excess cost threshold?  (At present, the ECS formula contains no student weight for special education students, and the Special Education Excess Cost grant is capped, so that districts are only reimbursed for a portion of costs due them for students whose education requires expenditures exceeding 4.5 times what is spent to educate non-handicapped pupils.) For years this has been a common cry by the education community and business leaders, yet this year few are raising it, even as special education costs continue to skyrocket and students’ needs for services are increasing.  The $50 million ECS investment could have been applied toward meeting the steep cost of existing special education mandates, but instead it will mostly go toward seeding the cost of new mandates for the lowest-performing, lowest-wealth districts.

Hidden Costs

And why is no one challenging the State Department of Education and/or Legislature to cost out all the separate provisions in SB 24 that carry fiscal ramifications for schools districts?  There are substantial cost ramifications for school districts attached to countless provisions throughout the bill.  None of these costs have been accounted for, and all will necessarily be foisted onto local property taxes.

A few quick fixes could minimize the fiscal flaws of this bill and its implicit increased reliance on the property tax for funding pre-K-12 education reforms.  Such mid-stream corrections, however, require loud and swift action by the public and major stakeholder organizations, as well as by legislators who even in an election year may be willing to champion prudent fixes before enacting this omnibus legislation.

The Key to Resolving the CCJEF Lawsuit

Once this short legislative session has finished, we need to rally Governor Malloy to stand behind meaningful school finance reform, lest the presumed SB 24 passage (in whatever form) leads us down an increasing array of fiscal blind alleys.  To be clear, meaningful school finance reform cannot be accomplished without a carefully studied rebalancing/restructuring of the state tax system to decrease the heavy reliance on the property tax for funding the schools. This probably calls for a new legislative commission to incorporate recommendations of the ECS Task Force and bring together education economists, tax experts and knowledgeable stakeholders to pick up the governor’s mantel of reform and embark on the months of deliberative work.  A new education cost study to update the one commissioned by CCJEF in 2005 would be an essential tool in crafting a rational school aid formula and related tax structures.

The reform goal for Connecticut’s school finance system must be to ensure the provision of fair, adequate, sustainable resources for supporting quality education commensurate with equal educational opportunity, the diverse learning needs of our schoolchildren, and the rapid changes needed for preparing a globally competitive work force that can help fuel the state’s economy and sustain our democratic institutions.  Achieving that same reform goal is the substance of the CCJEF v. Rell school funding lawsuit and key to resolving the case.  Expectations that the state’s school finance system must meet that standard are clearly reflected in the Connecticut Supreme Court 2010 CCJEF decision affirming schoolchildren’s right under the state constitution to an adequate education.  SB 24 is merely an awkward first step toward that goal.

(This commentary first appeared in the CT Post.)

Dianne Kaplan deVries, Ed.D., is an education consultant who serves as project director for the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding. CCJEF is a broad-based coalition of municipalities, local boards of education, statewide professional education associations, parents and concerned Connecticut taxpayers.

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