Both New London High School and Valley Regional High School spent about $16,500 per pupil in 2017-18, according to the state Department of Education. The schools are about the same size – with 568 and 583 students respectively – and are less than 30 minutes apart by car. And yet, every year students at the two schools have vastly different scores on standardized tests.
In 2017-18, just 36.7 percent of students at New London High School met or exceeded the state standard in math. In the same year at Valley Regional, 59.1 percent of students met or exceeded the same standard.
That same gap is apparent in every urban center and its suburbs in Connecticut.
New Haven’s Wilbur Cross High School and Cheshire High School spent within $100 of each other per pupil in 2017-18, but just 43.3 percent of students met or exceeded the state standard for math in New Haven while 64.2 percent met or exceeded the state standard in Cheshire.
“We’ve always talked about funding education on par with our suburban neighbors as a goal, but in reality we need to spend much, much more than they do to bring our kids up to the same level,” said Justin Elicker, mayor of New Haven, at a conference about education cost disparities across the state on Thursday. “We think if we just spend the same on every student we will get to the same point, but clearly it isn’t true.”
There are dozens of disadvantages that a typical student in New London or New Haven faces compared to a typical student in either Region 4 or Cheshire. They are more likely to be growing up in poverty, learning English as a second language and living in a single-parent household.
“These kids are exposed to thousands more words each day, have help on homework, parents that can pay for tutoring and serve as guidance counselors for the college search process,” Elicker said of their suburban counterparts.
That’s why researcher Bo Zhao at the Boston Federal Reserve Bank is proposing a new way for the state to distribute education funding to make up for the underlying disparities.
“I asked what would it cost for each school district to achieve a common performance target given its students characteristics,” Zhao said at Thursday’s conference. “Then, does spending meet the required cost?”
The current education cost sharing model
After a 1977 Connecticut Supreme Court decision in Horton v. Meskill mandating that all public school students are entitled to equal educational opportunities, the state introduced the Educational Cost Sharing grant that distributed state funding based upon district need, rather than the previous formula of a flat grant to each district.
The formula takes into account the estimated cost to educate an average student – today the state uses the number $11,525 — the number of high-need students, including English Learners, and the wealth of the town.
This formula explains why New London ends up with supplemental state funding of $8,655 per student, but Region 4 — the towns of Essex, Chester and Deep River — receives just $1,648.
According to Zhao, however, the $11,525 is not based on verifiable school spending data, and the metrics for need are somewhat arbitrary.
On top of that, the formula has never been fully funded. In other words, although New London received $8,655 in 2017-18, according to the actual Educational Cost Sharing formula, the district should have received much more.
“Our [Educational Cost Sharing] formula has never been fully funded. Last year we tried to pass legislation to bring it up to fully funded over the next decade, but, we will see,” said State Sen. Doug McCrory, the co-chair of the Connecticut Education Committee.
After analyzing education expenditures across the state and differences between school districts, Zhao settled on the four most important factors to determining the cost to educate a student to perform to the state standard:
the percentage of students living in poverty, the percentage of students living in single-parent households, the size of the district, and whether the school district follows a regional or municipal model.
From his analysis, Zhao concluded that Hartford should be spending 54 percent more per pupil than the average district and New Canaan could be spending 18 percent less to achieve the same results.
“The state needs to give more aid to districts with uncontrollable education costs,” Zhao said. “You need to increase their spending in order to decrease the performance gap.”
The one factor Zhao admitted he couldn’t account for in the formula – but would greatly impact whether or not the money spent actually impacted student outcomes – is how efficiently the money is spent in a given district.
Skeptics of the simplicity
Although the idea of more money equating to better outcomes in districts like New London is appealing to some, several conference attendees were skeptical of the simplicity.
“As we increase school spending, its hard to know if those actually go to increased performance,” said Stephen Ross, a professor of economics at the University of Connecticut. “The more we spend the less productivity we get for each dollar. We need to be much more circumspect when it comes to the dollars we are putting out there and what those dollars will accomplish.”
It comes back to whether the factors holding students back are truly solvable by providing more money at the district level.
“This is a great starting piece, but there are so many more factors to consider,” said McCrory, who was an educator and administrator in Hartford for 18 years before becoming a state senator. “How much money does Hartford have to spend for security and transportation compared to the suburbs? And none of those things get into the classroom or teachers hands.”
For McCrory and others it comes down to what is realistic and feasible.
“We know smaller class sizes works, but if we were to change the average class size from 24 to 21 students in Stamford, it would cost $45 million to do that,” said Stamford Mayor David Martin.