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School-Funding System Challenged

By Robert A. Frahm, Courant Staff Writer
December 1, 2004

A coalition of municipal officials and educators called for a radical revision of Connecticut's 15-year-old school funding formula Tuesday, contending it is shortchanging the state's public schools by millions of dollars.

The new coalition contends that state support for public schools has been inadequate, causing local property taxes to soar and forcing towns to cut back on everything from police services to street repairs. To bolster its case, the group has commissioned a study by a national school finance consulting firm to gauge the cost of providing adequate education in the state. The study is expected to be ready in the spring.

"The current system of funding education in Connecticut is broken,'' Hamden Mayor Carl Amento, president of the newly formed Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding, said.

Amento was among about 25 mayors, educators and local leaders attending a press conference in Hartford urging state legislators to revamp the Education Cost Sharing grant, the state's major source of financial aid to towns and cities.

The plea for more money for public schools is an annual occurrence before the state legislature, but the decision to commission a study of the adequacy of school funding is a sign the group eventually could take its case to court.

"Currently about 25 states have lawsuits on school funding. They all started the same way,'' said Mike Griffith, a policy analyst with the Education Commission of the States, a Colorado-based agency that monitors state education issues.

Connecticut's school funding formula underwent a major change after the state Supreme Court in 1977 ordered the state, in the Horton vs. Meskill case, to close a large funding gap between the state's wealthiest and poorest communities.

While many early school finance lawsuits focused on equity among school districts, much of the litigation now revolves around whether schools have adequate funding to meet demands such as special education requirements or new state and federal testing standards, experts say.

"It's exactly what you're seeing in Connecticut,'' Griffith said. "The argument is, you're not giving us the resources to do what you're telling us to do.''

Fifteen years ago, the state paid nearly 46 percent of the cost of running public schools, but that statewide figure had dropped to about 39 percent by 2002-03.

State Rep. William R. Dyson, D-New Haven, longtime co-chairman of the legislature's appropriations committee, said he understands why local officials are concerned.

"The largest part of any of their budgets is education,'' Dyson said. "If that's their first priority, then, yes, all other things get squeezed. The question becomes: Where do you think we're going to get the money from?''

The legislature revised the school aid formula with the introduction of the Education Cost Sharing grant in 1989, but lawmakers have imposed limits on the grant under the strain of tight state budgets.

In towns where the legislature has imposed caps on the school grant, "you could make a good argument they're not getting as much as they should,'' but the legislature is phasing out those limits, said state Sen. Thomas P. Gaffey, D-Meriden, co-chairman of the legislature's education committee.

This year, the state will spend nearly $1.6 billion in the Education Cost Sharing grant. That number is expected to increase significantly next year, Gaffey said. "I really do believe by the end of this [legislative] session, you'll see some changes [in the formula] that will bring about more equity.''

In 1998, a dozen towns sued the state, saying the school aid formula did not meet the needs of towns with growing numbers of poor children and low-performing students, but that case, Johnson vs. Rowland, was withdrawn last year because of mounting legal costs.

The new coalition includes mayors and other officials from 22 towns and various nonprofit groups representing school boards, teachers and school administrators.

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.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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