Creating a school aid formula that is reflective of students' needs, state's prioritiesSeptember 11, 2017
Each year, more than $2 billion in state education aid is distributed to towns and cities through entirely arbitrary block grants. There is no strategic approach that reflects the state's priorities, the needs of students or what cities and towns can afford. There is no "formula."
That's why the way the state distributes school aid is now in the courts. Last year, Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher found that the state "has no rational, substantial and verifiable plan to distribute money for education aid." That case is now on appeal to the state Supreme Court.
We do not believe we should wait for the courts to address this. It is the responsibility of the legislative branch, working with the executive branch, to adopt a fair school finance system for Connecticut.
Here is what we propose — a school funding formula based on verifiable data that:
- No. 1, Reflects a district's current enrollment.
- No. 2, Drives greater funds to students with higher learning needs, such as those who are low-income and English language learners.
- No. 3, Considers a town's ability to pay for its schools (measured by, among other things, a town's median household income and its taxable property per person.
These are not new concepts. They are simply fairer ways to fund schools that are responsive to our state's demographics.
Equally important, we propose to end the politically expedient bargain that has guaranteed funding to all towns, regardless of size or wealth.
A Faustian bargain was struck 40 years ago, to comply with the 1977 Connecticut Supreme Court's landmark decision in the case of Horton v. Meskill, which found that the way Connecticut funded public education — with the state giving each town the same flat grant amount per student — was unconstitutional.
In response, the legislature created the education cost sharing formula. The idea behind this formula was to distribute state education aid equitably, using a formula that gave more money to towns with lower property tax bases and higher student poverty — recognizing that those towns and their students need greater assistance.
But to get education cost sharing formula passed, legislators struck a deal: Every town would receive education aid, even those with only a few hundred students, those with little to no student poverty and those with very low property tax rates.
The costs of this deal quickly became too expensive for the state to fund. The result? Throughout the education cost sharing formula grant's entire 30-year history, the legislature has never fully funded the education grants under the rules it set up for equitable distribution. And a few years ago, the legislature stopped even pretending to follow the formula, and instead began using the arbitrary block grant system.
There is simply no reason for well-to-do towns with little to no student poverty to receive millions in taxpayer dollars. Similarly, towns with only a few hundred students in their schools cannot be artificially kept afloat. They must seek partnerships and consolidations with neighboring school systems.
There are, of course, those who prefer the status quo. We do not think that is good enough. The courts have already said that is not good enough. That is why, along many other legislators, we are working hard to see that these elements of a new school funding formula become incorporated into a final state budget.
The governor, to his credit, is pushing to reform school funding now. We agree that we should make these changes now. We should do so not only because it is the right thing to do, but because we do not want to abdicate our decision-making to the courts.
It's time to end Connecticut's unconstitutional method for distributing more than $2 billion in state education aid. It's time to finally address our state's long-standing school-funding challenges. That starts with implementing an honest, predictable, transparent and fair funding formula.
This op-ed was published in The Hartford Courant Sept. 8, 2017, and was written by state Reps. Mike D’Agostino, D-Hamden and Jeff Currey, D-East Hartford. State Reps. Michelle Cook, D-Torrington; Christopher Rosario, D-Bridgeport; William Tong, D-Stamford; and Christine Conley, D-Groton also signed their names onto the op-ed.