The State of Connecticut doesn’t know how much it costs to educate a child. And it doesn’t want to risk having to pay school districts more by finding out.
Close to 30 parents and teachers squared up in a classroom in Yale’s Marsh Hall on Prospect Hill to review the district’s current line-item spending, ask questions about next year’s budget and hear from three experts about what a different model of state support for education might look like.
The talk took place just days after the Board of Education asked Mayor Toni Harp to allocate $217 million for next year’s budget, covering a projected $30.7 million shortfall that Superintendent Carol Birks had warned could lead to closing a school and eliminating 170 full-time positions.
Most of the discussion focused on the adequacy of the Educational Cost Sharing (ECS) formula, the state’s mechanism for distributing $1.93 billion in aid to local school districts.
It starts by setting a “foundation” amount for how much it costs to educate a typical student anywhere in Connecticut. Currently, ECS formula estimates that it takes $11,525.
As Wendy Lecker, a senior attorney at the Education Law Center, pointed out on Wednesday night, the state didn’t pick that dollar figure based on any real study of costs; instead, it simply ranked the per pupil spending across every school district and arbitrarily set a cut-off that four-fifths of them exceeded.
“In its bones, [the ECS formula] should work fine — if it’s based on how much it costs to educate. Other states say, ‘Gee, how much does it cost to meet state standards?’ They do a cost study and they base the formula on that,” Lecker said. In Connecticut, “it’s just underfunded.”
Recognizing that some students have significantly higher needs, the ECS formula does pay more for students who are growing up in poverty or who are learning English as a second language.
The state doesn’t include any extra for learning disabilities, maintaining that its share of special education spending is already factored in to the foundation amount. But the ECS formula does kick in 30 percent more money to educate low-income students (plus 5 percent more when poverty is intensely concentrated) and 15 percent more money to educate English language learners.
Lecker said those numbers don’t reflect the realities in the classroom.
One independent adequacy study recommended putting up at least 112 percent more for mild learning disabilities and 332 percent more for severe learning disabilities, 76 percent more for English language learners and 32 percent more for at-risk students, along with a 12.1 percent bonus for urban areas.
“If you cut the inputs to the system in half, it still gets distributed equitably, even if it’s not adequate,” said Jill Kelly, a parent at Engineering & Science University Magnet School. “You can’t complain because you’re getting the right amount, compared to your neighbor, but it may not be enough to do the job to educate your kids.”
Once the weights are assigned, the ECS formula then doles the money out based on a town’s revenue-raising abilities. Towns can hike property taxes on their residents if they want to supplement the “foundation” amount.
That’s how the funding mechanism is supposed to work, at least in theory.
But the legislature has routinely skimped on its obligations, underfunding the latest version of the ECS formula since 2013, just a year after it reworked it, and distributing aid through block grants that have been about $800 million short.
Lawmakers have committed to fully funding towns over the next decade, which would lead to a $20.9 million increase for New Haven by 2028 at current enrollment, according to the Connecticut School Finance Project.
Overall, even though it’s intended to redistribute wealth around the state, though, the system ends up leaving vast disparities in how much school districts are currently spending on their students, ranging from $12,828 in Danbury $35,155 in Cornwall.
Among the big cities, the range is narrower, with per pupil spending falling between $13,061 in New Britain and $19,616 in Hartford. Last year, New Haven spent $18,381 per student.
Compare that to the suburbs nearby, where per pupil spending ranges from $14,275 in West Haven to $19,715 in Milford.
A growing body of research indicates that increased per-pupil spending leads to higher student achievement.
By looking at what happened after court-mandated school finance reforms hit 28 states between 1971 and 2010, one team of researchers found that a consistent 10 percent increase in per-pupil spending correlated with tremendous benefits for low-income students over the long run, staying in college for almost half a year longer and eventually earning 9.6 percent more.
Similarly, a quirk in New York’s laws that allows school districts with declining enrollment to keep drawing the same amount of state aid each year has given analysts another way to study per-pupil spending at a district level. In that case, researchers found that each $1,000 in additional per-pupil spending correlated with a boost in state test scores, about one-seventh of a grade level in math and one-ninth of a grade level in reading.
In recent years, it looked like Connecticut — under its own court order — was going to have to redirect money from well-off suburban schools to broke urban ones.
The Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding, a Hartford-based nonprofit that sued the state on behalf of municipalities, school districts, educator unions and students, initially convinced a lower-court judge that the state is “spending its money whimsically,” when it comes to schools.
“The state spends billions of dollars on schools without any binding principle guaranteeing that education aid goes where it’s needed. During the recent budget crisis, this left rich schools robbing millions of dollars from poor schools,” Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher wrote in a 2016 decision. “Instead of the state honoring its promise of adequate schools, this paralysis has left rich school districts to flourish and poor school districts to flounder.”
But eventually, the Connecticut Supreme Court overturned his ruling, saying that it wasn’t up to the justices to decide whether the state was failing its poorest students, as long as they did the minimum to keep schools open.
“Really, the courts basically said you just have to fund teachers, books, facilities and basic instruments of learning. You don’t really need anything like guidance counselors or [English language learner programs] or special education. That’s all extra,” Lecker said. “It’s out of step with just about every state in this country, and it gives the state license to basically fund it at whatever level they want to fund. Other state courts have said, ‘Of course, you need to bring education within the reach of every child, no matter what their needs are.’ Connecticut, no.”
At Wednesday’s meeting, parents asked what to do about their schools not getting enough to teach their kids.
They wondered aloud how they could lobby their state representatives for more cash when they still weren’t clear on why the district’s budget is so out of balance.
And they wondered aloud how they could demand more support staff when they had issues with classroom teacher performance.
Judy Puglisi, a recently retired principal at Metropolitan Business Academy, said that’s exactly what critics of school funding wanted them to argue about, debating about whether dollars should go to social workers or bilingual tutors.
Kelly suggested that a better system of governance would be one where schools set spending priorities based on what they need, rather than politicians just divvying up the available dollars.
“Ideally in utopia, that amount” — whatever’s actually needed — “would get funded, but we know that never happens because there’s not enough money,” Kelly said. “Governments obviously would not like this system because they’re the ones on the hook for the money. Instead, the system that governments really love is the opposite that’s input-based, saying how much they can give.”
But she also cautioned against seeing kids as dollar figures that add up wherever they go to school, in what’s sometimes called “student-based budgeting.” New Haven’s previous CFO Victor De La Paz tried to push the district towards that model in 2015.
“The thing that gets me [about that system] is that the blame for failure is not at the governor or the mayor or even the superintendent. The blame goes all the way down to individual principals, if a school is struggling and doesn’t have enough money to complete its functions,” Kelly continued. “It diffuses our popular anger. Instead of us all acting in solidarity and going to the mayor and the governor, it puts the school community in conflict with its principals.”