OP-ED | Turkey Last Week, Another In The Oven?
The ECS Task Force has been slow-roasting its work at a low temperature over the past 15 months. Slow-roasting a turkey is a great way to prepare a Thanksgiving bird. It requires no expert cooking skills and no special tools, yet it produces a fully cooked, moist and tender bird. Not so with revamping state education aid! And just when it looked as if dishing-up time had arrived, the fowl was deemed too rare and returned to the oven.
Having earlier this month redirected my attention to the promise and progress of this illustrious body, I want to register disappointment with both the cooking process and the glimpsed product of their labors. Time to turn up the heat over the next few weeks in hopes of inspiring the group to serve up a more seasoned and tasty main course that some half a million public school kids and their school districts across the state, as well as the mill rates of 169 municipalities, may all be forced to eat should the legislature go along with the final recommendations.
First, let’s talk failed process. With so much at stake for virtually every community in the state and all current and future public school children, expectations were high that the task force would be conducted with great public transparency, reach out for advice from state and national experts in school finance, and intensively listen to input from all major stakeholder groups and knowledgeable citizens who stepped forth to weigh in on how best to modernize, rationalize, and suitably fund our public schools. Driving the issue was the constitutional challenge brought by the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding (CCJEF), charging that the state’s current school finance system is inadequate and inequitable.
As the recent education finance public policy report issued by the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities (CCM) points out, this ECS Task Force is the ninth such official body established since 1977 to examine the ECS formula and related grants. The current reincarnation, however, is surely the least transparent undertaking of them all. Take a look at its uninformative and outdated website, its record of not publicly posting or widely publicizing advance notices of meetings, the inattention given to ensuring that audience members in attendance at its meetings have copies of handouts being discussed by members or an opportunity to weigh in on those matters, and its frequent failure to invite the CT-N cameras. And it gets worse. For its November 13 meeting, at which the subcommittee working on the ECS formula made its initial presentation, the co-chairs scheduled the session to be held in room 2600 of the Legislative Office Building, a room officially designated to hold 15 persons and not equipped for the television cameras. The Fire Marshall would have been appalled at the number of interested parties and press who crammed into that room, intent not to be closed out of the important discussion.
Earlier this week, at what was scheduled to be the penultimate meeting of the task force, the formula subcommittee announced that it was not yet ready to present its final recommendations, though the full task force did review and markup a draft of the final report minus the ECS section. Surprise, surprise — the task of appropriately “fixing” the ECS formula had turned out to be a whole lot more complicated than expected and therefore will require additional time. Seems that the town-by-town data runs didn’t accord with what most probably was within some pre-determined range of an expected “solution,” though we cannot be entirely certain of that, inasmuch as the five subcommittee members have been operating in the dark. After 15 months, still almost nothing to share and properly vet, excepting goals and assumptions. The co-chairs (OPM Secretary Ben Barnes and Education Committee co-chair Sen. Andrea Stillman) then cancelled the final meeting and extended until sometime after Christmas the deadline for the subcommittee to complete its task. In the interim, the co-chairs will meet with the subcommittee behind closed doors at the Department of Education to move the process forward. FOIA be dammed! Only when the data look “right” will the town-by-town runs be shared with the full task force, it seems. Disregarded were the objections of Meriden Schools Superintendent Mark Benigni to such an arrangement. He noted how deeply pertinent such information was to all committee members (not to mention also to the press and general public), and he urged that the full task force be involved in reviewing such data and making the formula decisions. Hopefully the press will pursue the sunshine on behalf of us all, including for other members of the task force.
Throughout the 15-month process, CCJEF has been kept at arm’s length by the task force, prevented from making any formal presentation to the group about problems with the current formula or suggested strategies for fixing it. However, the formula subcommittee, to its members’ credit, did allow my appearance (unpublicized) in what seemed to be a productive tete-a-tete in April. Whether that one exchange made any lasting impression remains to be seen, despite members’ enthusiastic accolades at the time. Later, in July, when the task force held a public commentary evening in Bridgeport (one of only three regional gatherings), I also used that opportunity to deliver 3-minute testimony to the few task force members in attendance, ending with a sentence that has fallen on deaf ears: “This Task Force has a unique opportunity to serve as a prime mover in resolving the CCJEF v. Rell lawsuit out of court for the most urgent sake of all our children.”
The failure to muster sufficient out-of-state expertise, refusal to hear the concerns and suggestions of CCJEF for fixing the formula and other elements of the state funding system, and insensitivities exhibited toward the press and general public’s right to know what is transpiring on such a major policy issue are all hallmarks of an Administration set upon doing as it pleases and without any pretense of bringing along the very folks that brought about the 2010 election results — a major disappointment. Democracy in action, not!
Next, let’s talk anticipated product. When the cooking has ended, how will we judge whether harmful bacteria may have contaminated the bird and made it unsafe for consumption? One clear warning that the bird is sick: political maneuvering involved in working backwards using whatever spending is perceived to be “about right” for investing in PK-12 education (which, given the state budget crisis, unfortunately may mean current funding levels). That describes how the broken school funding system has been operating for the past 30 years. Another sign of an unhealthy (and probably equally unconstitutional) cooked fowl: a formula that redirects state aid away from wealthier towns on the mistaken premise that affluent and even struggling middle-class communities can afford to pay more of the school funding burden than they already do. Yet some communities are already paying as much as 95 percent of all their local schooling costs, while others must spend up to 80 percent of all local revenues on their still under-resourced schools.
So what do we hope to get, by way of an end product? First and foremost, we hope to see a reasonable, good-faith effort at introducing improvements to the ECS formula and other components of the state’s school finance system that will help move Connecticut toward meeting its constitutional obligation to adequately and equitably fund the public schools. That reasonable, good-faith effort needs to begin with a recommendation for the state to commission, together with CCJEF, a new education cost study, one that builds on and updates the 2005 study that CCJEF commissioned prior to filing the school funding lawsuit. Only via an adequacy cost study can it be determined what it would cost for all kinds of learners to achieve the state’s own academic standards. Such a study results in grounded estimates of what the foundation level in the formula should be and the extra weightings to account for the additional costs for adequately meeting the extra learning needs of low-income children, limited-English-proficient students, and those who require special education services. Any rational, research-based, and ultimately ends-effective formula — one that can help drive student achievement — begins there, with a professionally conducted adequacy cost study.
Finally, clear evidence of a fouled fowl would be recommendations coming out of the task force that might lead to a further bastardization of the ECS formula as an equalization formula. The 2012 reform legislation affixed “conditions” to ECS grant increases for the 30 lowest-performing school districts, essentially layering a categorical grant atop the formula. The resulting convoluted ECS formula for 2012-13 distributes a very small amount of new dollars across most towns/districts, with no increases for the highest wealth communities and too little new money to cover the extra reforms to which the 30 districts much commit. All these modifications were done in a politically driven, non-transparent, non-formulaic, arbitrary manner out of the sunlight. No school finance experts, no knowledgeable public input, no tough questions from embedded press. Such reckless actions ought to be forsworn as not in the public’s best interests and not what is to be expected of state government, at least not in this state.
Best cooking advice? Skip the turkey, shop instead for quality lean beef. But get that education cost study underway so there’s hope for the future of our schoolchildren and it becomes clear where and how high we have to aim our precious resources if we are to enjoy strong schools and strong communities throughout Connecticut.
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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