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Funding Schools: Bristol's Schools Chief Discusses Higher Needs, Higher Costs

By DON STACOM

April 13, 2010

What does the state Supreme Court's landmark ruling on education funding mean to taxpayers, parents and students? A lot, says Philip Streifer, school superintendent in Bristol and a prominent advocate for changing how Connecticut pays for its public schools.

The court concluded on March 22, ruling in a long-running lawsuit, that Connecticut children are entitled to more than just a public education. Instead, that education has to be good enough to prepare them to succeed as workers and citizens.

The judges didn't set benchmarks for measuring which schools offer an "adequate education," but they established that basic standard and directed a lower court to work out the details.

Streifer predicted that that process could take years. Ultimately, he says, it will protect mainstream education from severe budget cuts and fund new initiatives to help academically underperforming youngsters. But it's all going to come at a substantial cost, he acknowledged.

Streifer, a former professor of educational leadership, kept track of similar cases in other states for years and concluded that the "adequate education" standard is essential to reinvigorating public education. He persuaded Bristol's school board to join the list of the plaintiffs in the recently decided suit, and speaks frequently on the subject.

Q: A dissenting judge in the decision wrote that the case could add $2 billion a year to the state's budget. The state is paying about that much in aid to local schools now, so are we talking about doubling the cost?

A: I've seen everything from $1 billion to $2 billion. But put that in the context of education cost sharing the Horton vs. Meskill case 30 years ago said 50-50 education funding: the state pays half, the cities pay half. But the state is paying barely 39 percent now, and the cities and towns pay 61 percent. So we're out of balance $400 to $500 million to begin with. Fundamentally, the state isn't coming close to its obligations.

Q: How will this case change that?

A: Now the court is behind us saying there's a constitutional obligation to properly fund public education. That takes more money because the needs are greater.

Q: If the state pays more, won't we have to pay more in state taxes? What do you say to someone who is out of work and saying we should be cutting costs, not spending more?

A: That's a legitimate question. As a taxpayer, I'm concerned about it, as well. There are one of three choices: Raise taxes enough to meet the state's constitutional obligation. Or, in light of the economic challenges, some say the government has to make a decision about what it's going to fund. It's not like the heyday when money was flowing they can't do everything. So policymakers have to think first and foremost about things the state is constitutionally obligated to do and education is one of them. The third option is a mix of doing that and raising taxes.

Q: You've mentioned that Bristol will be a winner in any version of this that develops. Will wealthy districts be losers?

A: [The Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding] is a broad-based coalition of suburban and urban districts. When you look across the state at the adequacy argument, the suburbans are having difficulty meeting all the state and federal education requirements, too. So are the rurals. I wouldn't say the [wealthier] districts will be losers they're receiving only a pittance in state aid now.

Q: What's the underlying problem that keeps schools from meeting an "adequacy" standard?

A: We have an achievement gap because we have a preparation gap. Children coming to us are disadvantaged they need more time in the school day, they need more time in school during the year, they need more resources for us to catch them. That equates to more costs.

Q: Are schools really seeing that many more disadvantaged children than before?

A: In Bristol, our elementary-level poverty rate in the last six years has gone from 25 percent to 42 percent. We're seeing more kids come to us who are behind by several years. They're not ready to learn, they haven't had the kinds of experiences in preschool and earlier that are necessary to prepare them. Our inability to close the achievement gap is directly attributed to our inability to close the preparation gap.

Q: And this starts in kindergarten?

A: When I came here 2 years ago, I made it a point to observe kindergarten classrooms across the city. I was frankly shocked at how many kids were not ready to learn. They didn't have the ability to sit and attend for a length of time, they didn't know their number facts or their letters, they hadn't begun reading skills.

Q: What's your response to someone who says, "But I raised my children, they grew up fine. So this isn't my problem."?

A: I'd say, "Are you receiving Social Security? That Social Security is not solvent 20 years from now. What makes it solvent is a productive, highly skilled workforce. If we don't have that 15 to 20 years from now, there'll be nobody to pay your Social Security. This isn't only my challenge, it's yours, too."

Q: What would the cost have been if the ruling had gone the other way?

A: I'm going to use stronger language now: the destruction or decimation of regular public education.

That's what's at stake here. I don't see any stomach at the state or federal level to retrench special education requirements. So to the extent we have fewer resources, what will be squeezed is regular public education.

It would get to the point where it's no longer working, where class sizes would get to unworkable levels, where we'd lose arts, athletics, sports, activities all the things that go to making a well-rounded person.

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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