By Skyler Inman
Following Gov. Dannel Malloy’s reelection last week, Connecticut’s education experts are urging the governor to ramp up efforts on education reform — particularly in regard to the state’s most obsolete school finance laws.
The Education Cost Share grant, a formula used to determine the allocation of state education funds across Connecticut’s cities, is one initiative under scrutiny. Although the ECS, enacted in 1988, aims to calculate a city’s need based on the number of students in its districts and gives more weight to students below the poverty line, critics say that, in practice, the policy’s monetary allocations are not directed toward schools’ actual needs.
In a Nov. 5 release, New Haven-based education reform group Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now urged Malloy to address the state’s outdated policies, which are trapping nearly 40,000 students in failing schools across the state, they said. Although the release did not point to any outdated policy in particular, ConnCAN CEO Jennifer Alexander touched upon education finance in general as a topic of concern going forward.
“We would like to see a school finance system that gives money more equitably across schools,” Alexander said. “What we’re seeing in Connecticut is a deepening of poverty in the cities and an expansion of child poverty into the suburbs.”
Despite Connecticut’s changing demographics, the essential inner-workings of the ECS grant have remained effectively the same over recent decades, according to education experts. Specifically, about half of the money that Connecticut districts receive currently comes from the state’s budget allocation. The municipal government is responsible for covering most of the remaining 50 percent of its education funding, with federal funds and special grants making up the difference.
However, because municipal governments can only raise revenue for education by levying property taxes, urban centers like Bridgeport and New Haven — which have a large number of tax-exempt properties, like universities, hospitals and government buildings -— do not have as much property to tax. James Finley, a pro-bono consultant and lobbyist with the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding, said that, given this system, Connecticut’s poorer urban areas — where the state’s highest-need students tend to live — end up being short-changed by the system.
For this reason, Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding — an umbrella group of parents, students, education reform activists and organizations — is currently embroiled in a decade-long lawsuit challenging the Connecticut state government on the fairness of the ECS. The latest session, which follows a 2010 Connecticut ruling in favor of CCJEF, was originally slated for a September 2014 court date. It was delayed until January to provide both attorneys with more time to prepare documents.
Although Malloy served as a founding member of CCJEF when he was mayor of Stamford and was listed among the original plaintiffs of the case in 2005, Malloy’s attorney general, George Jepsen, is defending the state’s ECS funding practices.
According to Finley, the ECS grant is underfunded by close to $700 million and has never been adequately funded.
“It’s been politicized over the years,” Finley said. “Under the ECS, the lower-income communities, those with the highest-need students, are supposed to get more money than wealthier communities.”
Finley said that Bridgeport, for example, one of Connecticut’s poorest cities, is underfunded by at least $39 million under ECS.
Kenny Feder, a policy analyst for independent research and advocacy group Connecticut Voices for Children, said that any suggested reform to education finance would require investment on the part of the state.
“We believe that the state needs to invest in public schools that serve students with the greatest need — especially when those towns don’t have the ability to pay,” said Feder.
The pressure of the CCJEF lawsuit comes at a difficult time for state government officials: Connecticut is currently dealing with a two-year $2.8 billion deficit.
Although this figure is down from the one-year, $3.67 billion deficit Malloy inherited when he first took office in 2011, Jeffrey Villar, Executive Director of Connecticut Council for Education Reform, says that the $1.4 billion deficit that the state will address this year will undoubtedly affect the way that Malloy’s government handles the issue of education finance under his second term.
As a result of increased fiscal tension in the capital, not all education reform groups are putting an emphasis on fixing ECS.
“We’re more concerned now about defending the current levels of funding,” Villar said. “I see the investment in early childhood education as a pressure point. You have to be focused and practical.”
The education reform packages introduced during Malloy’s first term have followed similar tactics of focused spending. Many of Malloy’s initiatives, including his allocation of $4.5 million for pre- and after-school programs late last month, have taken the form of task-specific grants given outside of ECS allocations.
Neither Malloy’s office nor the State Board of Education returned a request for comment.
Lizzy Carroll, director of Yale’s Education Studies program, said that Malloy’s emphasis has fallen on issues that are viewed as most crucial to fighting the achievement gap, like increased funding for early childhood education.
“When you look at education, it’s not just money steered everywhere across the board — it’s been targeted,” Carroll said. “You would need at least two to five years minimum before you can measure the outcomes of those initiatives.”
In 2013, attorneys asked the Superior Court to dismiss the CCJEF case in order to give Malloy’s 2012 reform bill at least three years to be implemented.
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