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An Issue Looms For Lawmakers: How To Make Education Substantially Equal In All School Districts

By GRACE E. MERRITT

April 13, 2010

How will the state pay for a "suitable and substantially equal" education for all children attending public schools?

That's the big question lawmakers will ultimately face, with the requirements dependent on the outcome of a lawsuit that could force the state to spend as much as $2 billion more a year to shore up low-performing school systems nearly double what it now spends on education.

The Connecticut Supreme Court, in what has already been labeled a landmark decision, ruled March 22 that the state's constitution guarantees students not just a public education, but a "substantially" equal opportunity to get an education that properly prepares them for college, a career and civic duties, such as voting.

The ruling didn't give specifics about how to accomplish that goal, but sent the case back to Superior Court for a trial. The Supreme Court decision, which sides with the plaintiff, strengthens their case in the lower court.

The decision immediately raises the question about how much such an educational system might cost, particularly as the state recovers from recession, and whether the remedy could be accomplished though policy changes rather than just spending. "If the plaintiffs were able to prevail on their argument, that would be an extremely difficult issue confronting whoever the next governor is going to be and the General Assembly," said state Sen. Tom Gaffey, D- Meriden, co-chairman of the legislature's education committee.

"We have a projected $4 billion deficit into the biennium that leaves one scratching his head as to how to possibly pay for that," he said.

The plaintiff in the case is the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding, a nonprofit group that believes the answer lies in shifting the tax burden from local municipalities to the state.

Rather than relying so heavily on local property taxes to pay for education, the state should institute a more progressive income tax or look for other sources of revenue, said Dianne Kaplan deVries, the organization's project director.

Declining State Aid

Some education experts say the state has failed to live up to its own education cost-sharing formula, which calls for a 50-50 split of state and local taxes to pay for public education. The ratio has changed over time, and localities now shoulder an average of about 52.5 percent of the cost of schools, with the state paying 42 percent. Federal funds and other revenue sources make up the rest.

"In Connecticut, we have never fully funded any of our school funding formula," said Patrice McCarthy, general counsel for the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education. "Therefore it's not necessarily that the formulas we've used are not appropriate. It's that we have never given them a chance to work."

The formula is designed to distribute money based on need. Hartford, a poorer community, gets $8,649 per student in state aid while Avon, a wealthier suburb gets $345 per student.

Some communities complain that the formula has created inequalities. Bridgeport, for example, gets $7,702 per student, substantially less then Hartford though both have high levels of poverty. Stamford gets $533.

"Stamford, on paper, is a high-wealth city, but its school population is extraordinarily high-need," with additional costs associated with immigrant children, poverty and special education, deVries said.

The coalition estimates it will cost about $2 billion a year to provide a suitable educational opportunity for adequate education to all children in the state based on a study it commissioned, factoring in such things as smaller class sizes, modern technology, high quality preschool, well-qualified teachers and modern textbooks and technology. A similar study by a state commission put the price at $1.2 billion.

The coalition says it will be costly just to find ways to catch students up who have fallen behind. It blames much of the lagging achievement on a lack of access to preschool education.

While the coalition believes the state will have to spend more money, most likely to be raised through income tax, others suggested that the state may also need to do some belt-tightening elsewhere to compensate.

"As an equal partner in this, the government should decide what it has fundamental constitutional responsibility to do, not just what it wants to do," said Philip Streifer, school superintendent in Bristol, which is a member of the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding.

Alternative Solutions

Still others say the solution doesn't necessarily require more money.

"We reject the notion that student achievement is measured by money," said Fergus Cullen, executive director of the Yankee Institute for Public Policy, a conservative, free market think tank. "The more important factor is, one, active, involved parents, and, two, the quality of the teacher in front of the classroom."

Cullen believes the inequities can be addressed by opening more charter schools, giving tax credits to parents who teach their children at home and expanding the Teach for America program, which would bring graduates from elite colleges into the classroom for two years. He also favors a program that would allow high school students to graduate in three years, then give them some of the cost savings in a direct scholarship for their first year of college.

He criticized the coalition for turning to the courts for a solution.

"What they really are looking for is a judicially imposed tax hike," Cullen said.

Others say more money for education is a good idea, but that it's important how it's used."Education advocates always welcome more resources, but most of the changes that we need can begin right now," said Alex Johnston, executive director of ConnCAN, a school reform advocacy group.

He pointed to a bill before the legislature that would connect student achievement and teacher evaluations. He also suggested that the state could benefit by seeing what other states have done to close the achievement gap between poorer and wealthier students, pointing to Florida's success in helping Hispanic students do better in school.

Since the 1980s, at least 30 states have been embroiled in similar education funding lawsuits, said Molly A. Hunter, director of education justice at the Education Law Center in New Jersey. Rulings have varied, but the plaintiffs have prevailed in most.

In some cases, the courts have been vague in their rulings, leaving the remedy up to the legislature. In others, the court was more specific, ordering a cost study or spelling out specific solutions, such as providing high quality preschool, Hunter said.

While some states have paid for educational solutions by raising taxes, most have found another way to direct new revenue toward the solution, usually during times of economic growth.

Arkansas, for example, consolidated some tiny school districts to cut spending; other states have explored regional cooperation to pay for transportation and special education costs, she said.

"Ultimately it depends on the court decision, how it's written, the political climate, the political leadership at the time and whether the economy is growing at the time," Hunter said.

No matter what happens, a final court decision is probably years away, with any Superior Court decision likely to be appealed. In the meantime, many hope both sides will come together and reach a settlement.

"Our hope is the legislature will engage in some serious conversations and make some changes in school funding that could address issues being raised in litigation," McCarthy said. "We remain optimistic [about the] possibility of resolving this outside of the courts."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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