In School Funding Fight, Connecticut Weighs Uncertain Next Steps
Everyone agrees the state's education system isn't working. But no one can agree on how to fix it.
Connecticut is the richest state in the country. And like all affluent states, Connecticut pours billions into education each year. Only the District of Columbia and two other states (Alaska and New York) spend more per student.
But for all the money Connecticut spends, it can't seem to close the gap between students in the richest districts in the state (places like Greenwich, Westport, Avon and Farmington) and the poorest districts in the largest cities like Hartford, New Haven and Bridgeport.
Student achievement also breaks sharply along racial lines. In math and English, twice as many of the state’s white students test at grade level than do black and Latino students, according to statewide assessment test results from 2017.
For more than a decade, the state has been locked in a fierce debate over how it pays for public education, thanks to a lawsuit claiming the state's funding formula was broken. Indeed, back in 2016, a superior court judge ruled that the state's formula was "irrational" and unconstitutional, and failed to adequately fund urban and poor school districts. He ordered the state to initiate changes.
But then, last month, the state Supreme Court overturned that ruling. Now, advocates and government officials alike are struggling to figure a solution for the persistent achievement gaps across the state.
In Connecticut, as in many other places, schools rely primarily on property tax revenue for funding. That means poorer urban districts often don't have nearly the same resources as their affluent suburban counterparts.
To help level the playing field, Connecticut has long had a statewide Education Cost Sharing program that distributes additional funds to struggling urban districts. It's currently a $2 billion bucket of money, which brings urban school funding in line with other parts of the state. In fact, dollar for dollar, urban schools in Connecticut are funded at levels equal to or in some cases higher than their suburban counterparts.
But advocates say that's still not enough to mitigate the effects poverty can have on a child's education.
The case decided on by the state Supreme Court last month was originally filed in 2005 by dozen school districts and localities that had organized as the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding. The CCJEF claimed that the state’s cost-sharing program was insufficient. To properly fund education, they said, Connecticut would have to pump some $600 million in additional money to low-income districts to help them meet their needs.
“Part of the state’s contention was that it was an equitable formula because if we get one dollar more to urban school districts, it shows we are equitable,” says Jim Finley, CCJEF principal consultant for operations and government relations.
But an equal formula isn't the same as an equitable one.
Advocates of additional funding say students in low-income districts need the state to account for paying social workers, counselors, after-school programs and other costs necessary to mitigate the impacts of poverty.
“Connecticut has the lowest bar I have ever seen in what constitutes a minimally adequate education in any state constitution," says Wendy Lecker, a senior attorney at the Education Law Center, which advocates for education equity across the country. "These districts are lacking in services for these students."
In its decision last month, the state Supreme Court didn't dispute the notion that Connecticut's educational landscape was tilted in favor of students in affluent areas.
“We acknowledge that the plaintiffs have painted a vivid picture of an imperfect public educational system in this state that is straining to serve many students who, because their basic needs for, among other things, adequate parenting, financial resources, housing, nutrition and care for their physical and psychological health are not being met, cannot take advantage of the educational opportunities that the state is offering,” the court said in its ruling.
But that doesn't mean the funding formula is to blame, the court maintained: “The plaintiffs have not shown that this gap is the result of the state’s unlawful discrimination against poor and needy students in its provision of educational resources as opposed to the complex web of disadvantaging societal conditions over which the schools have no control.”
More Money? Or Even Bigger Reforms?
Everyone knows Connecticut's education system is broken. The state education commissioner acknowledges the achievement gap, as does the attorney general and even Gov. Dannel Malloy, who went from plaintiff in the CCJEF lawsuit when he was mayor of Stamford to defendant in the case when he became governor in 2011.
As governor, Malloy has boosted funding to poorer schools, launching the Alliance School Districts program in 2012, which has since spent $500 million on 33 of the state’s lowest performing districts. And last year he proposed a restructuring of Connecticut’s education finance scheme, one that more heavily weighs poverty as a factor in receiving state funding.
The new formula would decrease funding at 138 of the state’s school districts and increase funding at 31 of the districts, shifting money from the haves to the have-nots. Hartford and Waterbury, districts with high concentrations of poverty, would be the biggest winners in Malloy’s proposal. Each would get more than $40 million in additional state support. State lawmakers adopted a version of Malloy’s proposal when Connecticut passed its biennial budget in October.
But what if more money isn't enough?
Connecticut has among the nation's highest rates of school segregation. Some reform advocates say the state won't ever be able to fix its funding problems without addressing the underlying issue of segregated schools.
Take Bridgeport, the state’s largest city and one of its poorest.
One third of the children there live below the poverty line. And the city’s population is nearly three-quarters black and Latino. Nearby Westport is 87 percent white, with a median household income almost four times as high as Bridgeport. Only 3 percent of Westport’s children live at or below the poverty line. The towns are 12 miles apart.
“When we are talking about equity, we are talking about Bridgeport versus a Westport,” says former Bridgeport schools superintendent Fran Rabinowitz.
Currently, Connecticut has 169 independent school districts, one for each town in the state. That Balkinization contributes to segregated systems as well as educational disparities, says state Education Commissioner Dianna Wentzell.
"The governance structure in Connecticut and New England encourages that kind of separation between towns that may not be so far apart in terms of distance but can be far apart in terms of demographics."
In contrast to Connecticut, the state of Maryland has nearly double the population but only 23 school districts, one for each county and one for Baltimore city. If Connecticut had a regional system more akin to Maryland's, it's possible that students from Bridgeport and Westport would attend the same schools.
Many people, including the CCJEF's Finley, say Connecticut would benefit from consolidating into fewer districts, perhaps even as few as eight, one for each county in the state. One such advocate is Lincoln Caplan, a senior researcher and lecturer at Yale Law School. Caplan laid out his argument in a 2016 New Yorker piece.
“With careful planning, a countywide school district could benefit poorer students from Bridgeport academically, and richer students would not suffer. Students in both groups would benefit from the type of diversity that, as a compelling interest of the government, is the sole reason the U.S. Supreme Court continues to allow affirmative action in admissions at public universities," Caplan wrote.
The Connecticut Council for Education Reform suggests such a move would also save money. Currently, the 169 school districts means 169 superintendents and 169 complete teams of administrative and support personnel.
Caplan says he got pushback when he published his argument.
“When that piece came out in the New Yorker I got scathing remarks, especially in the Gold Coast [the upscale communities in Fairfield County along the Connecticut coastline] who thought their kids were going to be penalized for being rich,” Caplan says.
Such a response doesn’t surprise Finley and CCJEF advocates. The political culture of Connecticut has long made it nearly impossible to work across town boundaries.
“The third rail in Connecticut is local control, and schools are at the epicenter of that," says Finley. "It’s difficult for people to see the benefit of their children attending schools with more diverse student bodies.”