Taking stock of the state’s education investment
The way Connecticut funds public education and the gap between the intentions and the results are frustrating some Democratic lawmakers. They want to treat the funding like an investment so as to assess whether the state is getting the best results from its portfolio.
The Connecticut Mirror reported last week that Senate Democrats want more transparency and consistency in school systems’ reporting of their finances, with a broader goal of redirecting funds to produce more and better-prepared workers and college-bound students.
It may sound odd to hear what sounds like fiscal conservatism from legislative Democrats. A clue to the group’s underlying motives is that the bill’s sponsors include urban senators often associated with the most progressive proposals in each session. Targeting of spending reports appears to make the discussion less about the students than the expenditures, inviting a different conversation than the customary one about fairness.
Their ultimate purpose, however, is to address the so-called achievement gap by gauging where funding is going, beyond teacher salaries. The sponsors are not expressly accusing school districts of creative bookkeeping. They do, however, say the reporting categories used by the state Department of Education don’t produce the level of detail they need to accurately compare districts’ spending and potentially reallocate resources.
The senators announced their priorities in the week before Gov. Ned Lamont is due to present his budget to the General Assembly -- this Wednesday, Feb. 8. Right now is also the wind-up for the municipal school budgeting process. East Lyme has already made headlines and upset parents by projecting teacher layoffs in a budget proposal nearly 7 percent higher than the current year. More such budgets can be expected as districts, wealthy or not, catch up with what the pandemic cost them.
The lawmakers’ proposal does not focus on pandemic damage, however. Instead, it returns to the overall, longstanding problems of low achievement by urban students, children of color, low-income students, and those whose primary language is not English. Indications have been that such students lost the most ground in the pandemic learning gap.
The proposal accounts for the reality that poor performance in school can shortchange a student, but widespread lack of achievement can hurt the economy. Connecticut has jobs begging for hires in many fields, including expanded submarine building at Electric Boat in Groton. If the state’s schools cannot graduate workers for jobs that can’t be done from home, who will be ready to do them?
The sponsors haven’t said exactly how they will ensure greater transparency or measure what they find.
Under existing law, a municipality uses property tax estimates to budget for the schools operated by its Board of Education. The state supplements that with direct aid formulas and funds for targeted programs, with more than $9 billion spent last year by local school systems. Boards of education have control of setting line items, but school spending plans are conditional until the state passes its own budget.
Meawhile, school boards are apt to face challenges from finance boards or budget referendums, which regularly send back budgets for a lower bottom line. It probably shouldn’t be surprising that districts might avoid reporting spending in any more detail than they have to.
I haven’t seen the senators refer to one of the most memorable moves to adjust funding among richer and poorer towns, maybe because it briefly challenged the legislature’s dominion over public education funding. In 2016, Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher ruled that to be constitutional, Connecticut’s main education policies must be “at least rational, substantial, and verifiable.”
The reasoning behind Moukawsher’s ruling presages what the Senate Democrats are saying now. "(T)he state spends billions of dollars on schools without any binding principles guaranteeing that educational aid goes where it’s needed,“ he wrote six years ago.
The judge gave the legislature 180 days to revise the system of state aid, but the Connecticut Supreme Court overrode his decision on appeal from the state in 2018. There was no 180-day plan.
A clue to where this Senate Bill No. 1 is headed may lie with those Democrats whose names do not appear as sponsors. Locally, only Martha Marx, the freshman senator from New London is listed; Sen. Cathy Osten of Sprague, Appropriations Committee co-chair, is not.
Lisa McGinley is a member of The Day Editorial Board.