The Connecticut School Finance Project has published a comprehensive comparison of how Special Education is funded in Connecticut compared to the other 49 states. Click here to read the report.
Below is an article published in the Bristol Press 3/20/16 with a summary of a presentation the CSFP conducted for Bristol city leaders recently.
BRISTOL — The way that Connecticut finances its local school districts is broken and the only way to fix it is to educate the public about how it works and doesn’t work, according to the Connecticut School Finance Project, or CSFP.
Based in New Haven, CSFP describes itself as a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization with the goals of being an independent source of information and identifying solutions to school funding challenges that are fair to students and taxpayers.
CSFP director and founder Katie Roy gave a presentation to school and city officials recently explaining the different federal, state and local funding streams, and comparing Bristol to similar cities and towns.
She was invited here by John Smith, vice chairman of the Board of Finance; Dave Mills, of the City Council; and Chris Wilson and Karen Vibert, chairman and vice chairwoman of the Board of Education.
Roy said CSFP has been around since last June and since then she has spoken to boards of education and town councils, as well as PTOs, church groups and other organizations throughout the state.
She covered the basics of how municipalities assess property and set tax rates, resulting in homeowners paying different amounts of tax depending on where they live and districts spending different amounts per student.
“You’d be surprised,” she commented. “I talk to some audiences that do not know that the way cities and towns raise money is through property taxes and that property taxes fund public schools.”
However, her main focus was on how much each school district spends per student and how the state funding gets allocated to the various districts.
Total annual spending in Connecticut on public schools is about $10.1 billion. The state government spends about $3.9 billion a year, or 38 percent of the total, and local property taxes account for about $5.8 billion, or 57 percent of the total. Less than 5 percent comes from the federal government.
The state does not fund all students equally, because equality really only works if everyone is starting from the same place, while equity is about fairness, Roy said. “In order to ensure that all students have equal access to opportunities we need to fund students in an equitable manner.”
Over the last 10 years the total number of students in Connecticut has declined by about 6 percent. By 2025, the state is expected to see an additional 12 percent decline in student enrollment, which will bring the number back to 1970s level, she said.
“However that decline is not expected to be uniform across the state,” Roy said. “In general, those places where enrollment is expected to remain stable or increase tends to be our higher-need communities. Those places that are expected to see very significant declines in enrollment, in some cases 25 to 40 percent, tend to be our smaller, more affluent towns.”
Bristol is the 12th largest district in the state and enrollment here is expected to decrease by about 6 percent over the next 10 years.
The reason is across the country, but especially in the Northeast, the population is aging, Roy said. “So in general we will have more older people in America in the next 10 years and fewer younger people.”
“Despite the decline, we have seen student need increase both in Bristol and across the state,” she said, noting that student need is commonly defined by the percentage who are eligible for free or reduced lunch.
And despite growing student need, Bristol spends a little less per student than similar districts and the statewide average, she said.
Roy compared Bristol’s total per student spending of $13,625 to the demographically similar districts of Naugatuck ($14,454), Vernon ($14,960), Manchester ($15,379), Middletown ($15,694), and Norwalk ($16,722), as well as the state average ($15,689).
She did point out that Bristol is certainly not the lowest-spending community in the state, that honor goes to Woodstock at $12,444, and Connecticut has some high spending communities that bring up the state average.
The main way that state funding gets allocated is through Education Cost Sharing, or ECS/Alliance District funding.
Roy explained that ECS was created in the 1980s as a way of equalizing spending between towns, after the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that property-wealthy towns spending more on education with “less effort,” meaning low mill rates, impedes children’s constitutional right to an equal education.
Bristol is one of 30 Alliance Districts designated by the State Department of Education for having the lowest performance index scores. Each Alliance district currently receives additional ECS funding.
The amount of per student funding the state gives to Bristol ($5,576) is somewhat higher than most of its peer districts of Naugatuck ($6,580), Vernon ($5,573), Manchester ($4,635), Middletown ($4,275), and Norwalk ($2,066), as well as the state average ($3,737).
“There is not necessarily a lot of rhyme or reason for what Bristol is getting versus some of the other towns,” Roy said.
She said the main problem with state funding is as of 2013, Connecticut stopped using a formula to determine how much each municipality gets for its schools and now makes arbitrary block grants instead.
Roy said that left school funding open rather than being based on the needs of kids and communities.
“The result of what we’re currently doing is why some wealthy towns are getting more than they are technically entitled to under the ECS grants while most middle income and poorer communities are getting much less than they are entitled to,” she said.
She gave the example of Greenwich, which for 2014-15 got an increase of $1.3 million more than the ECS formula said it was entitled to, while Bristol got $14.3 million less than was entitled to.
Susan Corica can be reached at 860-584-0501 ext. 1802 or firstname.lastname@example.org