December 21, 2006
By ROBERT A. FRAHM, Courant Staff Writer
Connecticut's heavy reliance on local property taxes to pay for schools fuels a well-documented array of stark inequities.
But what to do?
On Wednesday, a state commission on education finance made a bold recommendation: boost the state's major school-aid grant 75 percent by pumping an extra $1.2 billion a year into the public schools.
The hefty price tag will be a daunting political challenge to Gov. M. Jodi Rell and state lawmakers as they consider how to revise a 17-year-old school finance formula that critics say is underfunded and unfair.
After nearly a year of work, a study commission created by Rell outlined a proposal that would simplify some aspects of the complex formula and - over a period of years - increase state school aid dramatically, affecting virtually every school district in the state.
"This proposal is financially a very, very large undertaking," said Robert Genuario, Rell's budget director and the chairman of the 25-member commission. But the recommendations would go a long way toward making the formula more equitable, he said.
Other school funding reports in the past have produced mixed results. The most recent one, in 1999, made similar recommendations that would have produced big increases in state funding, but those recommendations were largely ignored.
The first signs of how the new report will fare should occur in February, when Rell outlines her state budget proposal, which then will go to the legislature. Lawmakers will have to weigh educational needs against a host of other budget demands.
"I think the governor is going to take [these] recommendations very seriously," Genuario said. "She's the one who called for the commission. She, however, is fully aware the state has limited resources, and this needs to be adopted in a fashion consistent with taxpayers' ability to pay for it."
Still, some are hopeful that Wednesday's recommendations, along with another report to Rell earlier this month calling for a major expansion of preschool programs, will provide a welcome boost to public schools across the state.
"This could be the year of education all around," said Patrice McCarthy, deputy director of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education. "We've never [fully] funded any formula in the past, so there is a bit of skepticism, but I do think the governor will support these recommendations in her budget."
Along with the proposals to phase in more state school aid, the panel recommended broad authority for the state Department of Education to order changes in curriculum, staffing and management in school districts that consistently fail to show progress in students' performance.
The panel also called for significant increases in funding for charter schools, magnet schools and a voluntary school choice program that allows students to transfer to schools outside their home districts.
Critics say the existing method of funding schools has strained school budgets and placed too much of the burden of school costs on local property taxpayers, leading in some cases to tax revolts.
In the small, rural town of Canterbury in eastern Connecticut, for example, voters have rejected school budgets each of the past two years, prompting officials to cut foreign language classes and reading programs and reduce custodial help at the town's middle school. Sandra Suplicki, the school superintendent, is hopeful the state will provide more help. "We'd also like to provide additional math and reading assistance to our students," she said, "but at this point we can't afford to do that."
The state's school funding formula underwent a major change after the state Supreme Court in 1977 ordered the state, in a case known as Horton vs. Meskill, to close a large funding gap between the state's wealthiest and poorest communities. As a result, lawmakers redistributed money, sending millions of dollars to the state's poorest cities.
In 1989, the legislature revised the school aid formula again, introducing the Education Cost Sharing grant, but lawmakers have imposed limits on the formula under the strain of tight state budgets.
This year, that grant will distribute more than $1.6 billion to cities and towns, but it is only part of a complex series of programs and grants adding up to about $3.5 billion in annual state spending on education.
Whatever Rell recommends in her budget, the issue is certain to be intensely debated by lawmakers. At stake are billions of dollars and the way those dollars are distributed to the state's school districts.
The debate will be watched closely by a coalition of municipal officials and educators that filed a lawsuit a year ago seeking to force the state to dramatically increase spending on education and revamp its education funding formula.
Dianne Kaplan deVries, a consultant working with the coalition, said Wednesday's report does not fully address what she called funding inadequacies among school districts, but if all the recommendations were adopted, "I think it would be a tremendous step forward."
Although there is support in the legislature for increased spending on education, the challenge will be to satisfy taxpayers that their towns are getting their fair share of state money, said state Sen. Thomas J. Herlihy, R-Avon.
Herlihy, whose district consists mainly of suburban and rural areas, said, "The cities tend to get ... two or three dollars back on every dollar they send, whereas many suburban and rural communities get only pennies back on that dollar."
However, state Sen. Thomas P. Gaffey, D-Meriden, said, "What you hear a lot about are complaints from towns that feel they're entitled to get more." Despite those complaints, the legislature must focus on helping the neediest school districts, including major cities, first, as required under the Horton vs. Meskill court ruling, said Gaffey, co-chairman of the legislature's education committee.
"It's going to be a difficult chore, as it always is, trying to allocate education funds under any formula and make everybody happy," he said.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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