Legislators Debate Two Alternatives for Funding Connecticut’s ‘Choice’ Schools

So you have a child who loves insects, airplanes and playing with a toy doctor’s kit. You want to send her to a science-focused magnet school in New London, but you live in Montville. 

The way it works today, the state will provide some funding to the magnet school to support your child’s education, but it will also send a portion of the funding to schools in Montville.

In 2021, the district of Montville would receive $5,659 — the per-pupil grant determined by the state’s Education Cost Sharing formula — and the magnet school would receive between $3,060 and $8,050 in addition to whatever tuition has been agreed to by the local schools and the magnet.

It’s a complicated system that My Child, My Choice argues leaves magnet, charter, and open choice schools needing to do more with less, while local public schools are paid to educate children that don’t attend. The nonprofit is an initiative of 50 CAN, a national education advocacy organization with roots in Connecticut that has supported increased public funding for charter schools. 

My Child, My Choice supports legislation that would change the school funding mechanism to a “money follows the child” approach, in which “choice” schools — magnet schools, charter schools and vocational tech and agriculture schools — would receive the entire per-student amount granted the district through the state’s Education Cost Sharing formula.  

That bill is opposed by the School and State Finance Project and the American Federation of Teachers who say that the legislation could seriously damage local public schools and the children who attend them, particularly those in the urban centers of Bridgeport, New Haven and Hartford, by redirecting money from the public schools to the choice schools. Under the legislation, students in choice schools would no longer be included in a district’s resident student count.

At a March 3 hearing, the School and State Finance Project as well as a number of public school teachers and administrators instead supported an alternative bill, which would grant choice schools the same per-student grant as public schools, but without taking money away from local schools. This alternative, called  “Act Addressing Education Funding and Racial Equity,” or Senate Bill 948, is also supported by 50CAN which authored the legislation. 

The bill would also increase overall state funding that districts receive for students learning English as a second language and children in high-poverty homes. The legislation would also fully fund the Education Cost Sharing formula, which was instituted and has been revised by the state in response to several court cases, most recently CCJEF v. Rell in 2016.

How money follows a child 

Dr. Steve Perry, the founder of My Child, My Choice in Connecticut, said his proposal will ensure that all of the funding will go toward the school responsible for the child’s education. 

“Finally, we’re having a conversation about funding children as opposed to funding school systems,” said Perry — a media personality who describes himself as “the educator Oprah Winfrey, Sean “P-Diddy” Combs, Bishop TD Jakes and Steve Harvey call on to offer insight to parents and children,” is also the founder of Capital Preparatory Magnet School in Hartford and is currently the head of Capital Preparatory Schools in Connecticut and New York.

Perry argues that the local public schools should not be “held harmless” or continue to receive funding when parents choose to send their children to a school outside the district. 

“If you have money that was collected to pay for a child’s education, then you should use that money to pay for the child’s education,” he said.

Under Perry’s “Money follows the Child” legislation, the state would pay the full amount of its contribution to a child’s education directly to the child’s choice school, with the local district contributing the remaining funds required to equal the per-pupil amount that a public school student in the district would receive.

Ruben Filipe, executive director of the Connecticut Charter Schools Association and a board member of My Child, My Choice, said that if the charter schools were to receive per-pupil funding that was on-par with the district schools, they could expect an increase in funding of up to $3-4,000 per pupil. 

P.A.C.E. Education Strategies, an advocacy group coordinating with the My Child, My Choice campaign, estimates that once the state fully funds its Educational Cost Sharing grants, the per-pupil funding for each student destined for a magnet, charter or other choice school would range between $11,593 (Weston) and $15,024 (Hartford).

But Perry emphasized that his proposal focused not on the amount of the funding, but on how it is distributed. Perry said that it was up to the state to choose how much it would fund the ECS formula. 

“We want to make sure children are funded at their point of education, not their zip code,” said Perry. 

State Rep. Kim Fiorello, R-Greenwich, said she fully supports the proposal. 

“Philosophically, I think it’s a beautiful piece of legislation,” she said. “It’s moral, it’s ethical, it’s fiscally responsible.”

Fiorello added that the proposal was also “budget neutral” — it would not cost the state any additional money, but rather reroute existing funds. 

“The elegance of our solution is that it calls upon the existing mechanisms and the existing funding,” Perry said.

The Impact on public schools

The potential downside for local public schools is two-fold. First, the public schools could lose funding for every student attending a choice school. Second, the local school district would have to compensate choice schools for the cost of educating local residents. 

State Rep. Kathleen McCarty, R-Waterford, ranking member on the Education Committee, said she could not support the “money follows the child” proposal. 

“The way it’s set up, a lot of money would be drained from the sending school districts,” said McCarty.

McCarty said that she was concerned about taking money from cash-strapped urban districts, particularly when children are already struggling with the fallout from the pandemic. 

And while Perry refers to the current system as “double-funding” — paying the school district for a child being educated elsewhere — McCarty said that this isn’t entirely accurate, given that local schools are still required to pay transportation and special education costs for all district residents. 

Bridging a divide 

Casey Cobb, a professor of education policy at UConn’s Neag School of Education, said that rather than moving money around, the preferable thing would be to increase funding for all the schools — choice schools and district schools alike. 

Lisa Hammersley of the School and State Finance Project agrees. She supports Senate Bill 948, which would increase the money going to both districts and choice schools, and would require an additional $445 million in state funding.

At the March 3 hearing, several Democratic legislators spoke in support of increasing funding to all students. 

“948 seeks to level the playing field with respect to providing opportunities for all students. Not just charter school students. Not just public school students,” said State Rep. Brandon McGee, D-Hartford.

“It really brings together funding for students and the choice of the parents,” said State Rep. Antonio Felipe, D-Bridgeport.  

Acting Department of Education Commissioner Charlene Russell-Tucker, however, expressed concern about the proposed increase in funding, and testified that the additional funding would need to include accountability measures.

Cobb expressed the concern that “money follows the child” would create a “free market” mechanism that could lead to a kind of “brain drain” from local public schools, putting those left behind would be at a further disadvantage.

Jessica Light, a third grade teacher in the New Haven Public Schools, echoed this concern in her testimony at the hearing. 

“Charter schools can do innovative vitally important work for a self-selected group. But it is not comparable to the work that the traditional public schools do,” said Light, who is also a member of the New Haven Federation of Teachers, AFT Local 933. 

“As a public school teacher, I am the safety net for all the children in New Haven, not just the ones currently enrolled in my classroom,” said Light, who also opposes Senate Bill 948. 

The problem, according to Cobb, is that school funding is overly dependent on local taxes, and the solution is for the state to provide a greater share of education funding. 

“The funding scheme right now is really so confusing and convoluted that it’s really hard to unpack,” said Cobb. “I think the perception is the reality — both sides … don’t feel they are getting enough funding per child.”

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