Chris Powell

Equality in School Spending is Easy — And Would Fail Too

When the first legal challenge to Connecticut’s system of financing local education was filed 45 years ago, the complaint was inequality — that since school finance was based on the local property tax, rich towns spent much more per pupil than poor towns and had more successful schools. This correlation was misconstrued to mean that per-pupil spending determined student performance.

The complaint of inequality remains the big complaint today, and during a recent internet conference call a group of ministers from Connecticut’s cities badgered Governor Lamont about it.

But the ministers and others clamoring for equality in per-pupil spending don’t really want it, and if they were ever pressed, they might admit they don’t. After all, what exactly is meant by equality in education?

If equality in per-pupil spending is the objective, it could have easily been achieved long ago. State government could legislate an amount per pupil to be spent in all school systems without exception. Presto — equality.

But equality in per-pupil spending would contradict what Connecticut considers a principle of education: local control. This principle is eroding, since state government increasingly tells school systems what they must do. But some do much better than others, so local control produces inequality.

For while the clamor for equality emphasizes school spending, mistakenly presuming that spending determines performance, the clamor really wants equality of results, though 40 years of higher spending in the poorest school systems have failed to improve results.

That’s because school performance is determined almost entirely by community demographics — by parenting, preparation for school. Communities with more two-parent households have better schools than those with more single-parent households.

This correlation reveals the causation, while the long failure of higher spending has disproved any link with performance.

Amid this long failure those in authority in Connecticut might be expected to question their policy premise. Even the city ministers who badgered the governor the other day should know better. But then the ministers may want to distract from an examination of the real problem — the disproportionate child neglect and abuse in their communities. If that problem was ever acknowledged, it might cause someone to ask what causes it, and then even bigger controversy might break out.

The spending approach to school performance is a double failure, for it also has been touted as property tax relief in the poorest jurisdictions. State government now covers more than half of school expenses there but their property taxes have kept rising anyway. The extra funding never reaches taxpayers. Instead it is absorbed by school staff compensation, because Connecticut’s collective bargaining, binding arbitration, and minimum spending laws make it essentially illegal to control school spending.

Preventing control of spending is the real objective of education policy.

Having launched the fool’s game of educational equality with its decision in 1977 in the first school financing case, Horton v. Meskill, the state Supreme Court quit playing two years ago with its decision in Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding v. Rell. The court realized that educational opportunity is a complicated political matter for the General Assembly and governor to decide by legislation — and that the courts don’t want to run the schools after all.

Better late than never, but there is no recovering the 40 years wasted in tinkering with school funding formulas.

At least in that internet conference call with the ministers the other day Governor Lamont seemed to resent being scolded about school spending. Maybe he knows the complaint is bogus. Since some of the ministers were from New Haven, the governor noted that the city has closed its schools for months and converted to “remote learning,” thereby canceling the education of thousands of students from poor households. A third of New Haven’s students are now chronically absent.

The governor didn’t mention it, but New Haven’s schools have been closed largely at the demand of their teachers. The teachers don’t really want equality in per-pupil spending any more than the ministers do. They just want more, which doesn’t educate anyone, but so what? It still enriches them.

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Chris Powell is a columnist for the Journal Inquirer in Manchester, Connecticut.

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