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More Money Needed for Public Education

Ray Rossomando ECS Presentation

CEA Legislative Coordinator Ray Rossomando presents to the ECS Task Force, including CEA Executive Director Mary Loftus Levine at left, at a public hearing in Waterford.

ECS isn’t broken: It just needs to be funded properly.

That was the consensus from speakers at the Education Cost Sharing (ECS) Task Force hearing held in Waterford last night.

“It’s not acceptable to underfund education,” said Erika Haynes, a mother of four from Windham. Haynes was one of a dozen people who spoke during the public comment portion of the hearing.

CEA’s Legislative Coordinator Ray Rossomando presented to the task force.  He showed the panel charts highlighting distortions to the ECS formula and how they have disproportionately impacted public schools across the state, especially those in our poorest communities. Rossomando pointed to a report “Improving the ECS Formula,” conducted by economist Dr. Ed Moscovitch, that shows that the ECS formula shortchanges our schools by $1.2 billion.

Click on chart for larger image.

Click on chart for larger image.

The charts show the current poverty factor using Title 1 for the red bubbles, representing the original ECS formula and the blue bubbles, representing actual funds received. The green bubbles show the formula using free and reduced priced lunch, which more accurately represents actual poverty levels in our communities, and is closer to the fully-funded ECS formula.

“The impact of underfunding is exacerbated by rising educational costs associated with the increasing demands that have been placed on our schools and our teachers,” said Rossomando.

Sharon Palmer, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) Connecticut agreed, “We need a way to fulfill funding commitments Connecticut made 40 years ago, and we need to use free and reduced lunch for counting poverty.”

Mark Benigni, the superintendent of Meriden Public Schools and a task force member, said Connecticut was a trailblazer in education funding, and we need to know how the formula was meant to work originally before there were any changes.

“We had a formula that was a leader in the nation. Tweaks to the formula have not put money with the poorest kids in this state,” said Benigni.

Research shows there is a direct correlation between poverty and student achievement. Mary Loftus Levine, CEA executive director and task force member, said one of the many things the state should consider is providing wrap-around services to help schools with societal problems. “We can’t expect schools to solve all of the societal problems in Connecticut and until we deal with it together as a community, the gap will continue to grow,” said Loftus Levine.

“ECS is the root cause of where Windham is today and the economic challenges we face today,” said Haynes, referring to state intervention in the school district. She said, “It’s unfair and economically discriminatory.”

“Money matters,” said Palmer, “and those who say we can simply reshuffle the deck of money cards are unequivocally wrong. Educational outcomes in Connecticut are determined primarily by the color of money.”

The situation in the Norwich public schools is so bad that Joe Stefon, Norwich’s director of curriculum and instruction, told the task force they’ve been forced to make severe program cuts.

“The tax base in Norwich cannot afford to fund our educational programs to meet all of our needs. Currently towns like Norwich with low fiscal capacity are least able to fund education, so our schools continually are underfunded,” he said.

Still, many believe the ECS formula has value. Senator Andrea Stillman, co-chair of the task force, said, “We need to see if we can make it better. Or if it is determined that it’s totally out of date, then what do we have to do to make it more appropriate?”

Ben Barnes, co-chair of the task force, said the ECS formula has never functioned the way it was originally intended. “We need to understand what we need today in order to address the educational challenges we have now, and come up with a funding formula that gets there. I am not going to deny that more money would be an advantageous component to that,” said Barnes.

“If Connecticut is truly going to provide substantially equal educational opportunity and continually enhance its economic competitiveness, it is incumbent on the state to meet its financial commitment to sufficiently, fairly, and fully fund its schools,” said Rossomando.

More State Aid Necessary for World-Class Schools

Ester Santana holding pie.

"The pie is too small." That's what Esther Santana, a parent from New Britain, told ECS Task Force members at a public hearing last night in New Haven. She was referring to the limited amount of state education money available that, when split among all Connecticut cities and towns, ends up providing a struggling district like hers with a tiny "slice."

Schools are in financial crisis.  Class sizes are large.  Academic programs are deteriorating.  And resources are slim with teachers digging into their own pockets to buy school supplies.  That’s the essence of what many concerned citizens told members of a state task force studying the Education Cost Sharing (ECS) formula at a public hearing last night in New Haven.

To dramatize the situation, New Britain parent Esther Santana presented the task force with an apple pie small enough to fit in the palm of her hand.  She told task force members that the state needs a larger pie in order to serve sufficiently sized pieces to cities with struggling schools like New Britain. Santana expressed deep concern that any proposal to send more state money to charter schools would be extremely detrimental.  “Our neighborhood public schools need nourishment.  It’s where the vast majority of kids go to school,” she said.

New Britain resident Merrill Gay agreed with Santana and read from a statement that the New Britain Board of Education passed unanimously, stating its opposition to the idea of “money follows the child.” Gay was a plaintiff in an important education funding case in which the Connecticut Supreme Court declared that all schoolchildren have the right to an adequate education.

Shana Kennedy-Salchow, co-executive director of the Connecticut Commission on Educational Achievement, a largely corporate organization, told task force members that they should provide greater resources to charter schools when they rewrite ECS.  Jennifer Alexander, policy director of the charter school organization, ConnCAN, suggested more state money for charter schools is essential.

Alexander’s perspective and financial calculations were sharply disputed by Jim Finley, executive director of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities.  He expressed concern about the burden that local taxpayers already bear supporting local public schools.  “The ECS program has never been fully funded and implemented as designed, and, as a result, has paid out billions of dollars less to towns and cities than it would have.  This gap in funding over the years has shifted an undue burden onto local property taxpayers.” Read Finley’s testimony here.

Marilyn Ondrasik, the former executive director  of the Bridgeport Child Advocacy Coalition, told the task force the situation in her city is “dire.” The state needs to provide greater financial resources to local public schools through the state school funding formula, according to Ondrasik.  “Otherwise you are just rearranging the chairs on the Titanic,” she said.

Dr. Philip Streifer, superintendent of the Bristol Public Schools and president of the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding (CCJEF), testified on behalf of CCJEF and the Connecticut Association of Urban Superintendents.   He said that 37 percent of school districts did not make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) this year in Connecticut under the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law.  “It’s due to financial neglect that stems from a state school funding system that is broken and based on an arbitrarily derived formula.  We want more money and more time to prepare students to become globally competitive graduates,” he said.

The task force will be holding an additional hearing where members of the public can offer comment at 5:00 p.m., Tuesday, October 25, at Clark Lane Middle School in Waterford.

The ECS Task Force was appointed by top state leaders, including Governor Dannel P. Malloy.  CEA Executive Director Mary Loftus Levine represents CEA on the panel.  The charge of the panel is to develop recommendations on possible ways to change how money is divided up by school district. For more information, visit the task force’s website.

Is The Way We Fund Our Local Public Schools in For Big Change?

The co-chair of the new task force reviewing the state’s education financing system said today that the door is wide open to new approaches.  Ben Barnes, the task force co-chair and Office of Policy and Management secretary, said the task force should consider a significant departure from the current Education Cost Sharing (ECS) formula. “We should not limit ourselves. I expect we come in with open minds. That being said, we are the land of steady habits, and ECS has its supporters and its strengths.” Barnes added that he thinks an important aspect of the task force’s work is trying to make the ECS formula “more responsive to our policy goals such as closing the achievement gap.”

Top state leaders, including Governor Dannel P. Malloy, appointed members of the task force earlier in the summer.  CEA Executive Director Mary Loftus Levine represents CEA on the panel.  The charge of the panel is to develop recommendations on possible ways to change how money is divided up by school district.

Senator Andrea Stillman, the task force’s other co-chair, said, “I don’t know any legislator that is happy with the formula. We should make it even better, and make it more appropriate for the times.”

State Department of Education Chief Financial Officer Brian Mahoney gave an overview of the formula.  He noted the significant statutory revisions that have been made to the formula over the years. The state has consequently rarely had an opportunity to fund the real formula, he said.

Ensuring that education aid goes to funding public schools and not replacing municipal commitments to local public schools is a valuable goal, according to Barnes.  “We should keep our eye on having the money improve educational outcomes,” he said.

CEA Executive Director Mary Loftus Levine expressed concern that towns have shifted local education funds to non-educational purposes.  She pointed to a February 2011 report from CT Voices for Children. The report indicated that in fiscal year 2010, towns were allowed to spend as much as 50 percent of their increase in ECS funding on non-education purposes.

The task force’s next meeting will take place October 6.  For more information, visit the task force’s website.

Warning: Uncertainty Ahead

Concession talks between state employee unions and the Malloy administration are coming down to the wire. State Capitol observers are increasingly anxious about the consequences of a breakdown. As the Hartford Courant opined today: If Governor Malloy fails to extract union concessions, then “he will also have to stop shielding schools, towns and cities from cuts and will have to slash programs that provide safety nets to poor, vulnerable citizens.” What do you think of the choices on the table for top state officials?

Governor Malloy signed the FY12/FY13 Biennium Budget Bill yesterday after it was approved by the House of Representatives and Senate. The new budget provides $570 million in state education aid to local schools over the next year two years to fill the gap created by the loss of federal stimulus funds. That’s good news for students and teachers.

But there’s no escaping the fact that the new state budget — just enacted — is actually roughly $1 billion in the red. It’s because it was passed with Governor Malloy expecting to get that amount of savings in concessions from state employees in negotiations underway. If those concession talks break down, then Governor Malloy promises to be back at the legislature with an “alternative budget.”

Here’s what Governor Malloy told citizens as he signed his first budget: “Now it’s up to my Administration to reach an agreement with our fellow state employees and to present it to the legislature for ratification. I remain hopeful that we’ll get there. If we don’t, I remain committed to presenting an alternative budget to the General Assembly in the next couple of weeks.”  Stay tuned to find out what an alternative budget would mean for our public schools.