Connecticut’s poorest school districts are anticipating millions of dollars of additional state funding directed toward creating a more equitable school system. It’s unclear how long they will have to wait. But the answer in part depends on the outcome of budget negotiations between the governor and the legislature over the next ten days.
Gov. Ned Lamont has said that he would like to freeze funding increases to distressed school districts for two years — funding that was already negotiated — and use the money to balance the state budget. But legislative leaders say they want to continue to fund the increases, at a cost of $33.1 million in 2022 and $64.7 million in 2023.
As the current cost sharing formula was written, each year from now until 2028, districts with greater need will receive more state funding, and districts with less need will see progressively less.
But a bill that would have accelerated that timeline — meeting 2028 funding levels by 2022 — was instead tabled in favor of a study to analyze the fiscal impact of the proposed change.
State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, said that the proposed bill was shifted to a model study mainly because of the cost — $445 million over two years.
Under the proposed study the Office of Fiscal Analysis, which is responsible for reviewing and analyzing the fiscal costs of programs, will 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.
Osten said that it was not unusual to take a few years to study a proposal of this size.
“The worst thing to do would be to support a bill one year and not be able to support it in the future,” said Osten.
The legislature’s budget committee, which Osten co-chairs, is trying to incorporate at least some parts of that bill into its bi-annual budget. In addition to reversing the governor’s proposed freeze, the budget would increase the amount of money that districts receive for non-English speakers and high-poverty students, at an additional cost of $4.7 million in FY 22 and $9.4 million in FY 23.
“We felt that that had validity,” said Osten. She added that they would also increase the per-pupil funding amount for the charter schools.
Peter Nystrom, the Reublican mayor of Norwich, praised Osten for her work. Under the legislature’s proposal, Norwich will receive an additional $1.25 million next year in comparison with the governor’s proposal.
“I support all her efforts,” he said. “ECS funding is really important. Our population is not going down … The cost of education continues to grow.”
Michael Passero, the Democratic mayor of New London, said he was disappointed that the districts would not be reaching 2028 levels of funding next year.
“That bill would have greatly impacted our ability to provide equal education opportunities for the children,” he said. “All the marginalized populations that that bill addresses are here in the city.”
The legislature’s proposal would increase New London’s funding by about $1.1 million next year over the governor’s budget. If the funding were sped up to 2028 levels, New London would have received an additional $9.4 million next year.
Joe DeLong, executive director of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, said that while it would have been nice to speed up the funding, the important thing was that the state stick to its commitments to fund the schools — without any delays.
“Most people … believe that the new formula created was a reasonable, fair and equitable formula. Just follow it now. Stop taking it and setting it aside. I think that’s our position,” he said.
But DeLong said he didn’t think a model study was necessarily a bad idea.
Katherine Ericson, executive director of LEARN, a Regional Education Service Center that runs four magnet schools in southeast Connecticut, thinks the added study is necessary. According to Ericson, there are still flaws in the bill that need to be worked out, especially part of the bill that would have prevented magnet schools from charging tuition to the local districts. The change could take away significant funding from schools.
“I certainly had serious concerns about the viability of some of the provisions,” Ericson wrote in an email. “It is so critically important that we get the details right whenever we seek to make fundamental changes to the way we finance our public education, so I welcome this being studied further.”
The State Senate approved the proposal for the model study on Wednesday. If approved by the House, the office will submit a report to the General Assembly by February 1, 2022.
Meanwhile, disadvantaged districts can expect some increase in funds next year if the legislature’s budget passes. Osten said that the governor hadn’t yet given the green light to their education proposals, but she’s reasonably confident of his support.
“Education is important to the governor, equity is important to the governor,” said Osten, adding that their proposal addresses both those themes.
For her part, Osten said she’s dedicated to getting the money for the schools.
“These are very important policies,” she said.