Governor Dannel Malloy recently signaled that he plans to cut $2 billion dollars from Connecticut’s next state budget.
At the same time, he and his Administration have also pledged to do their best to refrain from dumping the state’s problems onto the cities and towns – signaling to the towns that they will not be the target of major reductions in municipal aid.
During the gubernatorial campaign Malloy even promised not to cut the Educational Cost Sharing Formula – the state’s primary mechanism for providing towns with funds to support local educational expenses.
Behind and underneath the debate about what Connecticut can “afford” to transfer to its cities and towns is the even more complex issue of how the formulas that distribute those funds are constructed.
Over the past twenty years, some of Connecticut’s most important funding formulas have been so corrupted (aka modified) by political maneuvering that they no longer reflect the underling goals for which they were created.
As discussed in earlier commentary pieces, the $1.9 billion ECS formula is a case study about how a formula can change over time to address political rather than policy goals.
With Republican Governors and increasing numbers of Democrats representing wealthier Fairfield County communities, the ECS grant has been changed significantly since it was first adopted about twenty five years ago.
Over the past decade, Greenwich’s ECS grant has increased by 1,002 percent (from $310,000 to $3.4 million) while the grant for New London has gone up by 20.1 percent ($19 million to $23 million).
A similar pattern true across the state;
Hartford’s ECS grant has risen by 19 percent and Windham’s is up by 25 percent
Yet Darien’s received a1,532 percent increase in the ECS grant over the past 10 years, Westport’s a1,320 percent increase, Weston’s is 858 percent higher and Wilton’s is up 3,212.
Connecticut’s poor communities still get the vast majority of state funds but wealthier towns have done a good job in ensuring that the rate of growth has favored them.
The original goal of the ECS formula was to target state aid to poorer communities so that they had the funds necessary to provide their children with a quality education (a policy that is constitutionally mandated in Connecticut).
The amount towns received was driven by a formula that took into consideration the town’s wealth and the level of student need (as defined by the level of poverty, standardized test results and the need for English as a second language).
Widely recognized as a “national model” when it was created, Connecticut’s public officials have adopted various changed to the formula in almost every legislative session since.
The changes that were made in the late 1990s and early 2000s were “institutionalized” in 2005 when the Legislature started determining a town’s ECS grant allocation by simply adopting a set annual increase over the grant the town received in the previous year. By applying an across the board percentage increase for each town’s grant year after year there is no longer any on-going consideration of the underlying issues that were supposed to be addressed by the formula.
Some public officials, perhaps none more than Nancy Wyman, have recognized and articulated the need to return to the fundamental issues that the ECS formula was intended to address.
Considering state government lacks sufficient state resources to maintain the present – albeit broken – educational funding system, let’s hope that the Malloy Administration uses this extraordinary opportunity to actually restructure and redirect scarce resources to where they are most needed.
Simply capping the level of municipal aid – and maintaining the present distribution formula – disproportionately hurts the very towns that need the aid the most while protecting the towns that have the least proportional need.
When it comes to ensuring a good educational system, Connecticut’s constitution is one of the most clear and direct in the nation. State government MUST help towns provide each child with a quality education.
As Governor Malloy tackles the state’s fiscal crisis, he has the moral and legal obligation to adopt a budget that is fair and equitable and that means going beyond simply addressing the level of municipal aid but addressing the funding formulas that distribute those funds.