Truth From Fiction – The real story about CT School Funding (by Wendy Lecker)

A primer about Connecticut School Funding by Wendy Lecker

In September, Connecticut Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher issued a controversial decision in Connecticut’s long-running school funding case, CCJEF v. Rell.  Judge Moukawsher set forth a very narrow vision of what is needed in public schools in order to provide an adequate education; a vision that contradicted precedent across the United States and precedent from the Connecticut Supreme Court itself.  He essentially ruled that the State need only provide the “bare minimum” of facilities, teachers and instrumentalities of learning, and labeled anything beyond these three narrow categories as “extras;” even though it is accepted that students, especially our neediest students, need much more than that in order to have the opportunity for an adequate education.

Judge Moukawsher did highlight the inequities in wealthy versus poor districts in Connecticut. However, he refused to recognize that the extra resources that districts with needy students require are part of a constitutionally adequate education. Thus, if allowed to stand, his decision would render it impossible to create an equitable school funding system in Connecticut- one that provided adequate resources to our neediest districts. His decision has been appealed by both the State and CCJEF, and will reach the Connecticut Supreme Court in the spring of 2017.

In the meantime, there have been calls for Connecticut to fix its school funding formula before the CCJEF appeal is heard. The loudest calls have been coming from the charter lobby, which wants to seize this opportunity not to create a more just school funding system, but rather to create a system that facilitates the diversion of public dollars intended for public schools to privately managed charter schools.

The charter lobby has usurped the language of equity to advance its cause. It claims that Connecticut needs a system that funds “all public schools the same” and provides the same funding to students “no matter which public school they attend.”  As discussed below, while charter schools are considered public schools, they are by no means the same as traditional, district public schools, and should not be funded at the same level. Any claims about funding “students not schools” or “all public schools equally” should raise alarm bells. These claims lay the groundwork for not only diverting state funding to charter schools, but also diverting local funding to charter schools that are not part of a local district.

In their effort to persuade the public to divert more public funds to privately managed charter schools, the charter lobby will often use questionable statistics. For example, they will compare the $11,000 state allocation to charters to the full amount, including state, local and federal dollars, a local school district spends per pupil on its students.  This false comparison will always make it appear as if charters are being shortchanged. Thus, one must view any charter funding claims with a healthy skepticism.

Successful school finance reform always begins with an assessment of how much education costs, and always entails an increase in funding for public schools.  It is rumored that an organization close to the charter lobby, The Connecticut School Finance Project, is working with Governor Malloy to revamp the school funding system.  Governor Malloy already has stated that this year will be a “lean” budget year. Therefore, it is suspicious that he would choose a year in which he essentially acknowledges he will not provide adequate funding to public schools to engage in school finance reform.  This move should signal that he is not interested in providing adequate resources to public schools, but rather intends to shift money away from public schools to other “choice” schools, such as charters.

Now more than ever it is essential that we all understand some basic principles for school funding in Connecticut.

Some Principles for Connecticut School Funding

The goal of a state school funding system is to ensure that school districts, no matter what the wealth of those districts is, have sufficient resources to provide all students, no matter what the students’ needs and circumstances are, an opportunity for an adequate education.

Resources Necessary for an Adequate Education

Courts in school funding cases across this country have developed a consistent “basket of goods” that are necessary to provide all students the opportunity for an adequate education, including:

  • Reasonable class size;
  • Sufficient number of teachers, administrators and other personnel who are adequately trained and qualified;
  • An expanded platform of services for at-risk students (this usually means additional academic and social supports, including extra learning time, to enable at-risk children to access the same educational opportunities. It can include preK, as preK gives at-risk students additional time to catch up. There are those who advocate universal prek- i.e. prek as its own essential resource. That is a viable approach, although viewing prek as an at-risk intervention may be easier for courts and legislatures to accept)
  • Sufficient resources for children with extraordinary needs;
  • Up-to-date broad curriculum;
  • Adequate facilities;
  • Adequate instrumentalities of learning (books, textbooks, computers, supplies, etc);
  • Safe and orderly environment.

The goal in a state funding system, therefore, is to ensure that all districts are able to provide these essential resources to their students. In order to do so, the state must assess the cost of providing these programs, staff and services, and devise a fair manner in which to allocate funding (state/local share) for these resources.

Note:  In the CCJEF trial court decision, now on appeal, Judge Moukawsher, in contrast to all precedents across the country, limited the notion of adequacy to comprise only sufficient teachers, facilities and instrumentalities of learning- and he said the state is already providing adequate funding.  He called interventions for at-risk students “extras.” Thus, pursuant to his vision, it would be impossible to construct a funding system that is adequate or equitable.

State Funding Formula:

Many states, including Connecticut, adopt a “foundation” formula.  Most simply, a foundation formula establishes a “foundation amount,” which is supposed to represent the cost of educating a student with no additional or special needs.  The foundation amount is then adjusted to reflect the number of students in a district, and the needs of the students in those districts.  Often the foundation amount is also adjusted to reflect regional costs of education.  Once the amount for a district is calculated, the state must have a mechanism to determine the state share and the local share of paying for this amount.  That mechanism should take into consideration the municipality’s ability to raise revenue, thus the property wealth and income wealth of a municipality.

Foundation Amount:

The accepted method for determining the cost of education is to conduct an education cost study, which would essentially cost out the resources necessary to provide an education that would meet some agreed upon standard.  CCJEF conducted one in 2005, using a nationally known firm, APA.  There are several methodologies for conducting cost studies and many cost studies now use more than one (eg successful school and professional judgment) in order to assure accuracy.  It is essential that whoever conducts this cost study is recognized as an education finance expert and uses and accepted methodology.  These studies can be skewed to suit a political end.

The ECS formula has a foundation amount.  However, the Foundation Amount was never based on the actual cost of education (no cost study was ever done to determine the cost of education- the amount was based on existing spending at the time). Thus, the foundation amount in the ECS formula never represented the true cost of education.

Student Need:

Education cost studies have shown that it costs more to educate certain children than others.  Different children have needs that require additional services that cost money, therefore it costs more to provide them the same educational opportunity as it would children with no additional needs.

Poverty:  Costs studies have shown that it can cost up to twice as much to educate a child living in poverty (social supports, additional learning time, etc). Children who live in deeper poverty (eg, free vs. reduced price lunch) have additional needs that may increase the cost of educating them.  In districts with more concentrated poverty, the costs increase.  Thus, a weighting for poverty must account accurately for the existence of poverty, the intensity of that poverty and the concentration of poverty.  (Criticism of free and reduced price lunch is that it may be inaccurate and it is self–reported. Often students in secondary school do not identify as eligible for FRPL, so the poverty count is artificially lowered).  It is essential not to rely on national estimates or other measures that may not accurately reflect the facts on the ground.

The ECS formula never based its poverty weighting on the actual cost of educating children living in poverty.

English Language Learners (ELL): Costs studies have also shown that it can cost up to twice as much to educate an ELL student as a student with no additional needs.  ELL services are distinct from services provided to children living in poverty, so these weights are NOT interchangeable.

The ELL weight in the ECS formula was never based on cost. Moreover, in 2013, upon the urging of ConnCAN, the legislature completely removed ELL as a weight in the ECS formula.

Students with Disabilities:  It can cost up to four times as much to education a child with disabilities.

The ECS formula never included a weight for students with disabilities.

Regional Cost of Education

Formulas do adjust for the regional cost of education, using several possible methodologies.

State/Local Share: 

In order to accurately assess these shares, the state must have an accurate and reliable and up-to-date measure of a municipality’s property and income wealth.

The ECS measure of a municipality’s local share has been improperly skewed toward property wealth.

Any state school funding system must ensure adequate resources, equitably allocated to school districts.  Moreover, it must provide a predictable and stable source of funding. It is perfectly reasonable to use the framework of the ECS but assure that it is based on the actual cost of educating students with all types of needs, and that it accurately apportions the state and local share.

Why the state funding system should not be “student based”

Over the years, there has been a proposal to institute “student based” funding (called weighted student funding, money follows the child, among other names), in which funding gets assigned to the student no matter what school she attends.  This proposal is often pushed under the guise of equity but really is a mechanism to facilitate funding intended for district schools to go to charter schools.  These proponents claim that it is only fair for all “public schools” to get the same amount.

What this system would do would be to take the ostensible cost of educating a child, including both state and local allocation, and say each child should get this amount no matter which school they attend.  So if the state allocation does not cover the cost, the district in which that school is located would have to pay the rest of that amount.  This would mean, in the case of charter schools, that local districts would have to pay a local contribution for each student attending.  As charters expand, more and more money would be drained directly from local budgets.

There are different types of schools that Connecticut calls “public.”  However, they are not all the same. Charter schools in particular are not at all like district public schools.  They are exempt from many of the regulations and requirements to which district public schools are subject.  They do not need to serve all grade spans, provide all programs, serve all children in a district, etc.  In addition to the sanctioned exemptions, charters in Connecticut often underserve the neediest (ELL, students with disabilities, free lunch) and most expensive students. In addition, charters have always been envisioned as transitory, and if there is proper oversight, their charters can be revoked.  For these and other reasons, courts across the country have rejected claims by charters to obtain an equal level of funding as district public schools.

The State has an obligation to students to provide an adequate education (charters have no constitutional right to an education- children do). As long as a child can attend an adequately funded school in her district, that obligation is satisfied. There is no right for students to choose the “flavor” of school they get. There is no right to have two parallel school systems, public and charter.  In fact, diverting money from a school system that must serve all students (district public schools) to one that need only serve the few undermines the state’s goal and obligation to have a fully funded school system that serves the needs of all students.

In fact, the Connecticut Attorney General has declared recently in a pending federal suit (where charter advocates are attempting to lift any cap on charter expansion) that Connecticut’s district public school system is the vehicle that the legislature has chosen to fulfill the State’s constitutional obligation to provide each child with an adequate education.  The Attorney General pointed out that magnets and charters are “purely statutory vehicles that the General Assembly thus far has authorized and funded as a matter of public policy, and that the General Assembly could discontinue at any time if it were so inclined.” Thus, district public schools fulfill Connecticut’s constitutional obligations, while magnets and charters are voluntary, transitory, purely statutory creations.

Moreover, the Connecticut Attorney General has acknowledged in these same court papers that to fund a system of magnet and charters would be more expensive than providing adequate support to the existing traditional public school system.  Connecticut should, to use the words of the Attorney General, “be devoting the State’s limited resources to improving those schools, as opposed to creating and fully funding a new and more expensive system that is based on charter and magnet schools.”