OP-ED | Another Backwards Fix For ECS?
Citing state budget constraints, the Education Cost Sharing Task Force will be recommending ECS formula changes that when fully funded by FY17 or FY19 would cost the state no more than what the current ECS version should already be providing school districts.
Both the recommended formula changes and the overall funding level are causes for great consternation. Nevertheless, welcome glimmers of adequacy and equity principles illuminate portions of the formula committee report that was presented at the final meeting of the Task Force on January 3, 2013, inspiring sentiments that were echoed in statements by nearly all Task Force members. Acknowledging with regret that their work product had been hampered by the state’s fiscal crisis, several members noted that the time has come for the state to move forward by examining the real cost of providing a constitutionally adequate and equitable education for all children and to use that research base to forge an adequacy formula for funding the public schools.
ECS Funding Level
The current ECS funding level is $1.9 billion, based on a partial funding of the FY08 revamp of the formula. (That revamp grew out of recommendations made by Governor Rell’s 2007 Commission on Education Finance that was convened subsequent to the filing of the CCJEF v. Rell school finance lawsuit.) The fully funded cost of the FY08 ECS was set at $2.7 billion, to be phased in over 6 years (FY08-13). Thus full funding of the formula should already be in place, but it is not. Instead, the ECS was frozen in FY09 when fiscal crisis gripped the nation and level-funded through FY12, resulting in just a partially completed phase-in that was unequal across municipalities. In fact, the state is currently underfunding the existing ECS formula by some $763 million, according to a recent report issued by the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities.
When the current Education Cost Sharing Task Force got underway in autumn 2011, its “marching orders” seemed quite clear: No more money because the state doesn’t have any more money (at least not that its willing to invest in PK-12 schoolchildren), so just reshuffle who gets what in a way that bolsters funding to the neediest communities. Unfortunately, that’s the prescription for a Robin Hood scheme, one far more unsettling than the hurriedly enacted, twisted changes made to ECS allocations for FY13.
So, with only $1.9 billion being invested in the current ECS, it took bold determination for formula committee members to push the funding envelope above that level. Eventually they were able to work backwards to recommend formula changes that would redistribute a total of $2.7 billion, representing the fully funded FY08 formula.
Indeed, “working backwards” — i.e., starting with the total dollar figure the state is willing to invest and then shoe-horning in all the necessary formula variables to produce a politically palatable rather than educationally sound formula and equitable distribution mechanism — has been a long-standing tradition in Connecticut school finance. (Nor is our state government unique in this unsuitable budgeting practice.)
One ironic outcome of formula committee recommendations is that their work, in essence, would enable the state to vote itself a 4- to 6-year extension for meeting its FY08 $2.7 billion ECS commitment, which should already have been fully phased in. This portends something just shy of a looming fiscal disaster for all but perhaps the most affluent of communities whose property tax base already sustains nearly all the costs their public schools. It will gravely impact the ability of traditional school districts — especially those that serve large and growing proportions of high-need students — to meet the state’s ever-increasing educational standards and related mandates. That countless superintendents, boards of education members, and municipal officials from communities of all sizes and wealth levels already describe their school funding situations in this very same impending explosive way should give legislators pause when considering the Task Force recommendations.
ECS Formula Changes
Forced to work backwards, the Task Force formula committee, as one dismayed West Hartford activist describes it, merely “solved for x.” In other words, they worked to solve the heuristically simplified equation of ADM * x = $2.7B, where ADM equals average daily matriculation (attendance) and x equals whatever need students and weighting could be added to represent the marginal costs (over and above the cost of a regular student) of students with extra learning needs. And their solution to the equation isn’t at all palatable. For example, it…
a. Raises the current ECS foundation from $9,687 to $11,754. (This is approximately where it would be today had the original ECS foundation formula not been altered. However, only a dozen or so communities, including several high-needs/low-performing school districts, spend less than that per pupil. This is straightforward evidence that the foundation level needs to be substantially higher.)
b. Reduces the poverty weight from its current 1.33 to 1.30, but uses free/reduced-price meals as the measure of poverty rather than the current Title I eligibility. (While the change in measures is a big step forward and significantly counts more impoverished students, the cost of serving children in poverty would be even more under-weighted. Moreover, student counts for free versus reduced-price meals should be separated, with a higher weighting for students eligible for free meals, since that pertains to the poorest among low-income children.)
c. Eliminates entirely the current 1.15 weight for English-language learners. (No extra funding whatsoever is provided for the extra cost of serving some 30,500 ELL students. The elimination of the ELL weight, although it was grossly inadequate, is an altogether unfathomable decision made by the committee, especially in light of ELL students’ contribution to the state’s unconscionable achievement gap and troubling graduation rates among minority students.)
d. Reduces the minimum aid ratio for towns from 9 percent to 2 percent, except for Alliance Districts, whose ratio is raised to 10 percent. (The minimum aid ratio ensures that all towns receive at least a small amount of ECS aid for their students, even those communities whose town wealth calculation would otherwise preclude any state equalization grant allocation. In this economy, no town or school district can afford to lose state aid; and presumably the hold harmless intent of the Task Force would prevent this provision from exacting any cuts.)
e. Lowers the State Guaranteed Wealth Level from 1.75 percent to 1.50 percent. (The original ECS formula set SGWL at 2.0 percent, which is essential if the state’s share of education funding is to reach the long-promised 50 percent. At the current SGWL level, CCM estimates the state’s FY13 share for the median town to be 43 percent, a state share that ranks 45th in the nation for the funding of PK-12 education.)
f. Drops the use of per capita income figures in favor of measuring income solely by median household income using data from the American Community Survey. (Use of the ACS would eliminate the decades-long data lag based on U.S. Decennial Census figures, but the ACS fails to capture income from capital gains, a serious omission in a state in which income inequality is one of the greatest in the nation.)
g. Claims to weight property value and income more equally. (The critical issue of how to equitably and accurately measure town wealth remains unresolved!)
That some of these recommended changes to the ECS violate basic tenets of adequacy and equity ought to be obvious to all. Hopefully, legislators, educators, civil rights advocates, and parents will soon speak up and seek to rectify the wrongs while reinforcing the positives. At the same time, many other vital aspects of the state’s funding of traditional school districts will need to be examined, such as the minimum budget requirement for municipal support of the schools, regional/geographic cost adjustments, indexing of the ECS to inflation, and whether and how to incorporate preschool students and those attending choice programs into the ECS.
ECS Recommendations from an Adequacy and Equity Perspective
Task Force formula recommendations completely fail the “rational basis” test for any state equalization formula. Working backwards from an arbitrarily fixed dollar amount can never meet that bar. Without a new adequacy cost study to provide that rational basis, it’s impossible to know just what the foundation level and need weightings ought to be in order to ensure equal educational opportunity or to arrive at any affordable plan for how to phase in the needed resource levels. To their credit, the formula committee has recommended that such a study be undertaken.
Task Force recommendations fail to provide a rational basis for any state equalization formula. The discarding of any ELL weight is blatantly inequitable and would dramatically impact funding in the urban, larger suburban, and small Eastern Connecticut districts that are home to most of the state’s immigrant populations. Additionally, stark evidence of equity melt-down is provided by the town-by-town data runs contained in last Thursday’s working packet, which approximate how the committee’s formula changes would play out. Keep in mind that the Robin Hood purpose underlying the changes was to drive more of the $2.7 billion to low-wealth/high-needs school districts, which should increase one important criterion of equity. Yet the spreadsheet simulations undermine it all and show that the committee’s attempt at working backwards does not succeed.
Disregarding the “No Hold Harmless” spreadsheet (the Task Force rejected that approach as inconsistent with their intent), the layout of the spreadsheets itself invites misinterpretation, as was immediately pointed out at the Task Force meeting by Meriden Superintendent Mark Benigni. FY12 ECS allocations represent only a partial phase-in of the existing FY08 ECS formula, a phase-in percentage that varies significantly across municipalities. Comparing that 1-year partially phased-in allocation with the fully funded amount a town might eventually receive under the recommended new formula and presenting that difference as the “gap” or gain to be had from adopting the recommended changes is both erroneous and highly misleading. That ill-conceived analysis subsequently led to false conclusions by some readers who then unwittingly spread the inflated funding differences via the web and social media, temporarily offering hope that the state was actually planning to add significant amounts of new money to the historically underfunded ECS.
Inexplicable anomalies result when the correct comparison is made, showing the fully funded FY08 allocation for each town versus the fully funded FY17 or FY19 results. Looking at the “Hold Harmless” simulation shown here are a few examples of the estimated gains or losses by high-needs communities that may be realized, not accounting for the cost of inflation over those coming 4 to 6 years:
Hartford $30,089,255 (14.5%) Bristol $-3,779,573 (-6.2%)
Bridgeport $16,170,178 (8.3%) Meriden $-1,992,667 (-15.0%)
New Haven $18,123,987 (11.2%) Norwich $-78,732 (-0.2%)
New Britain $12,581,280 (12.8%) Plainfield $-2,840,038 (-14.5%)
New London $8,238,811 (32.6%) Stamford $1,509,160 (7.8%)
Waterbury $17,501,172 (10.8%) Torrington $43,921 (0.1%)
Windham $196,016 (0.6%) Winchester $-1,512,091 (-15.3%)
Nevertheless, on a more positive note, the formula committee’s narrative contains strong statements that support the principles that undergird school funding adequacy and equity and reflect what CCJEF and allied organizations have long been advocating for. This includes recommending “a comprehensive cost study regarding the demographic, economic, and education cost factors that should be considered in determining an appropriate foundation level for the cost of education.”
The committee’s recognition of the principle that even the best state aid formula cannot function if it is not adequately funded is also notable: “What is critically important is that once the ECS grant is determined it be fully funded from year to year with an appropriate phase-in period if required.”
Reassuring too are the report’s concluding remarks, that “The larger the share of overall funding for public education that comes from state sources, the more equal the educational opportunities are across Connecticut’s 169 towns. Thus, the state must make a long-term commitment to increasing its proportional share of total educational funding in the state….”
In Sum, a Thank-You
The formula committee’s two primary objectives are indeed laudable — to comply with the state’s constitutional requirements for the equalization of educational opportunities, and to help close the achievement gap. However, what has been proposed fails to reflect or effectively operationalize either of those essential educational values. To be fair, what the committee has offered up is more of a rough sketch than a finished blueprint for how to redistribute a fixed amount of state funding to help prop up our neediest school districts. And committee members made that clear at the final Task Force meeting, while humbly pointing out some of their own regrets over where this exercise takes the state.
Committee members’ efforts were certainly not a waste of time or talent. For the first time ever, these distinguished citizens who were appointed by our elected state officials have given quasi-official public voice to a need to adopt an adequacy approach to funding the public schools. Hopefully also, the knowledge and insights they personally gained over their 17 months of service on the Task Force will continue to be put to good use on behalf of children, schools, and the continuing school funding struggles that lie ahead.
Kudos go to formula committee members Len Miller (Greenwich, chair), Rep. Michael Molgano (Stamford), Ray Rossomando (CEA), Dudley Williams (Stamford), committee late-comer Ted Sergi (West Hartford), and former member Mary Loftus Levine (CEA, who served prior to her retirement). It is a pity that structural parameters robbed them of the opportunity to approach their task differently, but they deserve our thanks for a valiant effort.
Lest anyone is still wondering, the Task Force formula committee recommendations will most assuredly not help the state defend itself against CCJEF v. Rell when the case finally goes to trial in July 2014.
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.
Tags: Education Cost Sharing formula, ECS Task Force, hold harmless, municipalities, Dianne Kaplan deVries
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