OP-ED | ECS Fix Doesn’t Pass Smell Test
Town-by-town results of the Education Cost Sharing Task Force recommendations for revamping the ECS formula show that the proposed scheme fails to pass the smell test.
The proposed formula changes, as I previously described, are based on a backward methodology, wherein because of the state’s budget crisis, task force members were confined to reshuffling who gets what share of the state’s 2008-09 $2.7 billion ECS commitment — funding that already should have been fully in place but is not. The new ECS fix would finally phase in that same sum by FY17 or FY19, along with arbitrary changes to the foundation level, student need weighting, and town wealth adjustments.
To be clear, reallocating a fixed sum of ECS dollars means reducing state aid from one school district and awarding it to another. It’s a Robin Hood scheme. However well-intended, its aim is to increase aid for the state’s neediest districts.
Any decrease in ECS allocations or municipal aid to schools could well be the tipping point for educational disaster during these times. Even solidly middle-class communities are experiencing a rapid growth of poverty amid severe budget constraints. Maxed out property tax rates and threatened cuts in state aid are making this year’s local budget process among the most nightmarish in recent memory. Last year’s underfunded “education reform” mandates, along with looming implementation of the Common Core and its costly new technology-based assessments, add significantly to local angst, budget peril, and academic disruption.
Robin Hood Effects
Of the state’s 169 municipalities, some 116 (or 68.6 percent) would become “losers” under the recommended ECS formula changes over the 4- to 6-year phase-in period. Losers include 10 towns whose schools are designated Alliance Districts, which are supposedly among the state’s 30 districts in greatest need of turnaround reforms and increased fiscal support. Just what kind of ECS grant improvement seeks to reduce allocations to Ansonia, Bristol, East Windsor, Killingly, Meriden, Naugatuck, Norwich, Winchester, Windsor, or Windsor Locks? Certainly the explanation for their decreased allocations under the new formula, as compared with what now exists, cannot be attributed to any increase in town wealth. Nor should an enrollment decline be offered as an excuse to further underfund these school districts, given the past five years of essentially flat ECS funding they’ve suffered despite the large proportions of low-income children they serve. Indeed, there should be no question that the state is failing to provide adequate funding to these and lots of other struggling school districts.
Fifty-three municipalities would become “winners,” including those that are home to the remaining 20 Alliance Districts. Not a single winner is undeserving of those needed extra resources. In fact, 14 of these winners are among the approximately 45 Connecticut towns that are still receiving less ECS funding today, after accounting for inflation, than they received under the $250-per-pupil flat grant that was in effect in the mid-1970s prior to the Horton v. Meskill decision. This includes Branford, Canaan, Farmington, Guilford, Newtown, Norwalk, Orange, Shelton, Stamford, Stonington, Trumbull, Watertown, Westbrook, and Woodbury. The proposed task force scheme, with its extra Robin Hood resources, would surely provide no miracle fix for these school districts or their property taxpayers who, until now, have had to shoulder much too great a school funding burden. Nor will the Robin Hood resources be much of a boon to Alliance Districts, especially when compared with the results of the 2005 education adequacy cost study’s estimates of what those districts require if all of their students are to succeed academically. Reforms in those districts will be required to proceed if the added ECS dollars are to be claimed, despite a lack of funding for regular school district operations and the state’s 10-cents-on-the-dollar funding of many of the improvement mandates.
The task force scheme is even more grim after taking into account the effects of inflation. Assuming that inflation from 2013 to 2017 or beyond will not exceed the 2008 to 2012 rate (unusually low, given the nationwide recession), any “gains” from the new fully funded allocations must be discounted by at least 6.27 percent — or perhaps more, in the 2 to 3 percent per annum range, inasmuch as education costs are known to rise faster than the CPI-U. Thus many fewer than 53 towns could expect to realize any increase in ECS over what they should already be receiving if the state had abided by its own 2008 legislative commitment, and “losses” for the remaining three-quarters of towns would deepen accordingly. Not taking inflation into account, the proposed ECS change would increase per pupil funding by an average of just $113 statewide, while freezing all formula elements, including enrollment, special needs students, and town wealth, for the 4- or 6-year phase-in period. Nevertheless, before any new legislation is enacted all the formula figures reported here would be updated to reflect the latest demographic figures available.
Click here for a comparison of each town’s current ECS fully funded allocation (per the formula’s FY09 revamp) and the new scheme recommended by the task force. Results are listed in order of greatest loss or gain and do not take future inflation into account. This analysis is based on figures presented at the Jan. 3 meeting of the ECS Task Force and assumes that every town would be held harmless at the FY09 ECS level. The list identifies each school district’s DRG, or District Reference Group, which is the Department of Education’s indicator of roughly comparable socioeconomic communities (A=wealthiest to I=poorest). Also identified by an “A” in the right-hand column are the 30 Alliance Districts, whose allocations the task force purportedly increased by 4 percent in recognition of the districts’ additional reform needs.
Loser municipalities also are depicted on this map. Note the heavy impact on eastern, western, and northern Connecticut. Small town/rural communities — where residential real estate comprises most of the tax base and up to 80 percent of those revenues already go to support the local schools — would take a major hit from the proposed ECS reform recommendations.
Non-ECS Recommendations of the Task Force
In addition to the above recommendations that emanated from the ECS formula subcommittee, two other subcommittees contributed to the task force’s final report. The school choice subcommittee recommended grant increases for non-Sheff host magnets and regional agriscience center programs, to be phased in over 4 years. Both the non-Sheff host magnets and agriscience programs would be funded equally, with the state providing a standard $3,000 per student for in-district students in addition to the district’s ECS per pupil allocation. For out-of-district students, the state would provide two-thirds of the statewide average of regular program expenditures plus 10 percent (to compensate for the more expensive operations of magnet programs). Moreover, the tuition cost to sending districts would be limited to the difference between the state’s per pupil grant and the prior year’s average per-pupil cost of the program. For agriscience centers, in particular, this promises real progress toward more equitable state funding (though it’s not quite equitable yet and is still inadequate) that is better aligned with sending districts’ ability to pay the tuition charged by regional school districts that host those programs. Subcommittee member Bill Davenport, an outstanding teacher who directs the nationally award-winning Ellis Clark Regional Agriscience & Technology Program in Woodbury, deserves a huge shout-out for his efforts on behalf of these educationally important and very successful regional centers that historically were the state’s first magnet programs.
Given the existing funding structures of the Connecticut technical high schools, state charter schools, regional education service centers (RESCs), and RESC-run Sheff magnets, the funding of those schools of choice was not addressed. In their discussions, task force members signified that none of these unique programs ought to be included in the ECS formula.
The special education subcommittee made good progress in examining the urgency of the state stepping up to the plate and assuming more of its rightful funding obligations for high learning needs/high cost students. Recommendations call for the state to fund 100 percent of both regular and special education costs for state-agency placed students, and, importantly, for the state to “increase and guarantee the special education excess cost grant and include a fixed definition of ‘excess’ for all districts, such as $50,000.” Such changes, of course, would bring substantial relief to all school district budgets, though not as much as other special education funding approaches might. Despite the clear admonishment that task force recommendations not encompass additional state spending at this time, the inclusion of these special education conclusions in the report is noteworthy. Hopefully the special education recommendations will garner immediate legislative attention, if only because of the serious mental health and school safety issues now under consideration in the wake of the Newtown tragedy.
Is the Task Force Report DOA?
State budget woes are real, as are the school funding needs that ECS Task Force members conscientiously grappled with over the past year and a half. Will their work now be set aside while we await the state’s seemingly elusive economic recovery? Would those recommendations, if enacted, succeed in providing the fiscal resources needed for significantly improving the public schools and closing the state’s achievement gap? Would the task force recommendations move the state closer to meeting its constitutional obligation for adequately and equitably funding the schools and ensuring equal educational opportunity for all students? And while their goal was never education adequacy, has the ECS Task Force met its own goal of increasing equity in the distribution of scarce state resources to towns/school districts, particularly with respect to the state’s primary education grant?
Certainly the recommended ECS formula changes are nearly as flawed as the currently broken ECS, versions of which have bedeviled town/district budgets for the past quarter-century. Yet another futile tinkering with the formula was expected from the get-go, as “getting it right” takes lots more specialized school finance expertise than the subcommittee was allowed to consult — and even a perfectly designed formula will not work if it isn’t sufficiently funded. Moreover, no formula remake can be expected to move the state closer to a resolution of the CCJEF v. Rell lawsuit in the absence of an updated education adequacy cost study jointly commissioned by plaintiffs and the state to provide research-based estimates of what a quality education system realistically would cost. More about that soon. In the interim, moving forward with more equitable funding for the non-Sheff host magnets, regional agriscience centers, and special education would be a blessing for our schoolchildren, their schools, district/municipal budgets, and a more competitive future workforce.
Dianne Kaplan deVries is an education consultant who also serves as project director for the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding, plaintiffs in the CCJEF v. Rell education adequacy and equity lawsuit. Opinions expressed here, however, are solely hers and not necessarily those of CCJEF.
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