HARTFORD — A proposal that would have sent millions of dollars to some public schools beginning next year through a change in state funding meant to further equity between Connecticut school districts has been postponed for further study.
It’s a proposal that would have given $6.2 million to Middletown, $9.4 million to New London and $9.7 million to Norwich next year alone according to the nonprofit School and State Finance Project.
Proponents argued in a public hearing in March that this would bring needed dollars to the districts sooner rather than later.
“More than ever, communities require greater resources to meet the needs of their students and they cannot wait for [state funding] dollars to be phased in over the next 7 years,” testified Kevin Booker Jr., city councilor for New London, at a March hearing.
The current state funding formula for education cost sharing is already in the midst of a gradual change, the result of a bipartisan agreement in 2017. Each year from now until 2028, districts with greater need will receive more money, and districts with less need will see a progressive decrease in state funds.
The latest proposal would have sped up that process so that needier districts received the full 2028 amount next year, while wealthier districts would continue seeing a slow phase-out of funding.
The bill also would have increased the amount of funding for non-English speaking students and low-income students, and it would have funded charter, magnet and vocational schools at the same rate as traditional district schools.
State Rep. Brandon McGee, D-Hartford, said during the hearing that this would represent a more equitable funding system.
“[The bill] seeks to level the playing field with respect to providing opportunities for all students. Not just charter school students. Not just public school students,” he said.
But Charlene Russell-Tucker, commissioner of the state Department of Education, expressed some concerns. She testified in the public hearing that the increased money for poverty and English language learners needed to be accompanied by accountability metrics.
According to Russell-Tucker, the proposal could actually limit funding for magnet schools given that it would prevent charging tuition to the surrounding districts.
“A Good Faith Effort”
State Sen. Doug McCrory, D-Hartford, chair of the legislature’s Education Committee, said on Wednesday that the legislature wanted to better understand and analyze the complex formulas for funding different types of schools before making any decisions.
“Unfortunately there are so many layers to the way we provide funding to school districts that it would take a great deal of time to explore this,” said McCrory. “We’re going to take our time, actually study the situation and come back with some suggestions.”
But State Rep. Kathleen McCarty, R-Waterford, and State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, told CT Examiner on Thursday that the main problem with the bill was the cost — an additional $445 million.
The legislators instead decided to ask the Office of Fiscal Analysis, which is responsible for reviewing and analyzing the fiscal costs of programs, to model the funding discussed in the original proposal and look at its effects on all the parties involved — local governments, charter schools, magnet schools, vocational schools and regular district schools.
“The goal is to make sure we are equitably funding both traditional and non-traditional public schools,” said Osten.
State Sen. Eric Berthel, R-Watertown, said in the Senate on Wednesday that he felt going forward with a no-cost option at this point was a good plan.
That way, he said “we have a better understanding of what the impact is and how it affects the way we do business in the education space.”
Michael Morton, deputy executive director of communications & operations at the School and State Finance Project, a strong supporter of the original proposal, said that he approved of the idea of a study.
“I think it’s a step forward,” he said. “Is it the exact step we would have liked? Well, no. But I do think it is a good faith effort and we’re appreciative of the effort … to try and make this a reality,” he said.
The office must submit a report to the General Assembly by February 1, 2022. Osten said that if the report’s outcome requires a significant amount of money, the legislature will make a plan to fund the schools over time, similar to their seven-year plan to increase funding for nonprofits.
Morton said he hopes that the legislature will move quickly after receiving the results of the report to implement the funding increases suggested in the proposal.
“I think there’s always an urgency when you’re talking about inequitable funding,” he said.
The legislature did include some of the original bill’s provisions in its two-year budget, including adding an additional $4.7 million in 2022 and $9.4 million in 2023 to increase the amount of money districts receive for non-English speakers and high-poverty students. The budget also increases the state per-pupil grant for charter schools and for vocational agriculture schools.
More significantly, the legislature’s budget continues the state grant increases in 2022 and 2023, pushing back against the governor’s proposal to freeze increases in state grant funding until 2024. Instead, schools would be expected to rely on federal coronavirus relief money to get them through the next few years.
Morton, however, said that the federal funds just complicate the conversation.
“We’re talking about funds used to provide relief from the pandemic,” said Morton. “The federal funds are not going to be coming back every year. It’s not a solution to the conversation about equitable and appropriate funding in the future.”
The governor and the legislature have not completed budget negotiations. The budget will need to be set before the legislative session ends on June 9.